Monday, 25 March 2013

Words of wisdom and prophecy from a magnificent mind in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

From The Week of March 18, 2013

True genius is a rare and precious thing. For its scarcity stands out like a diamond amongst the rough, allowing its light, in the form of its opinions, its theories, and its understanding, to be taken seriously by a world that largely believes in authority and that holds a deep admiration for exceptional people. Yes, there is certainly great wisdom in the thoughts and beliefs of ordinary folks, but these notions have no platform, no popular basis from which to spread through the culture. This is not a problem for geniuses who, in their celebration, are given a soapbox from which to speak to the world of what they hold dear. Though just such a soapbox was used sparingly and with humility by Mr. Feynman, it was also used powerfully and effectively by one of the 20th century's most extraordinary minds, a truth revealed repeatedly in this collection of his essays.

The son of a uniform salesman who passed on a life-long curiosity for the world and its many, mysterious systems, Richard Feynman was a key physicist in his discipline's formative century. One of the many minds to follow on from the golden generation of Einstein and Bohr, Heisenberg and Wheeler, he left school to work on the Manhattan Project -- holding the distinction of being one of the few scientists to witness the first Trinity test with the unguarded eye -- before going on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for his contributions to the advancement of Quantum Electrodynamics. Between these remarkable milestones, he made singular contributions to a dozen aspects of theoretical physics. Today, however, he is remembered best for envisioning and conceptualizing nanotechnology, imagining a world where computers, both quantum and conventional, would facilitate an immeasurable leap forward in human society.

A legendary talker, notable for his unusual deployment of English, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out collects a series of speeches and interviews Mr. Feynman gave over the span of his career. From Japan to Italy, from anecdote to commencement address, he expounds upon not only the moments and insights that brought him renown, but the life experience's that reveal him to be a man of brilliance and humility. From the hilarious absurdities of government censorship during the Manhattan Project to the passionate exhortation for nanotechnology, Mr. Feynman manifests, here, as an exceptional, ordinary man, a profoundly human creature with an otherworldly understanding of the universe.

For all of Mr. Feynman's physics, though, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is most evocative when it speaks to the great man's philosophy. Holding up doubt as the key virtue of the scientific mind, he laments the thoughtlessness of religious believers who accept as truth something they haven't tested. Nor do they wish to test it. Theirs is literally a senseless belief, one that manifests from a mind unschooled in the scientific method. In this vein, Mr. Feynman exhorts his fellow man to doubt everything. For it is only through testing those doubts that one can find truth. Nothing, no theory, no notion, no matter how farfetched, should be dismissed out of hand. For to dismiss anything without testing its veracity is to be no better than those who believe thoughtlessly in dogma. It is to trust what one feels, not what one knows to be true.

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is not without its darker moments. Mr. Feynman's anecdotes, playful though they may be, expose the powerful skein of sexism that ran through academia for all but the final few years of the 20th century. He manages, even here, to be charming. Even so, he is representative of the paternalism of his time, a white man in a world that, by and large, only recognized and appreciated the contributions of white men. This is a sin that should not be forgotten, a sense of personal entitlement that not only runs counter to the core philosophies detailed here, but that destructively ignored the talents of millions of women and and individuals from other ethnicities that could have made exceptional contributions to the advancement of science.

This is mesmerizing work, not only for its pleasing voice but for what it teaches us about science, philosophy and the Good Life Outstanding in spite of its occasional missteps. (4/5 Stars)

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