Richard Feynman on the Art Behind Science

We’re taught to think of scientists as cold, rational, emotionless people. But that isn’t true.

One of the best antidotes to this view are the stories of Richard Feynman — everyone’s favorite safe-cracking theoretical physicist.

For example, let’s look at how Feynman created the famous Feynman diagrams” that won him the Nobel Prize, told in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”.

It all started with a bit of mental burnout:

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing — it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. …
So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. …
I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing’’ — working, really — with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

I think science classes these days could use a heavy dose of Richard Feynman — mine certainly could have.

The Myth of the Objective Scientist

Scientific discovery is dirty business.

Most people think science is all about cold, impartial objectivity. But, in reality, it’s impossible to entirely separate a scientists’ feelings — her dreams, biases, and views of the world — from the practice.

The subjective is just as important as the objective.

Stephen Jay Gould — Harvard professor, evolutionary biologist, and one of my favorite science essayists — says as much in Dinosaur in a Haystack, a collection of his essays:

I would … reject any claim that personal preference, the root of aesthetic judgment, does not play a key role in science. True, the world is indifferent to our hopes — and fire burns whether we like it or not. But our ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective “scientific method,” with individual scientists as logical (and interchangeable) robots, is self-serving mythology.”

He continues:

“Scientists reach their conclusions for the damndest of reasons: intuitions, guesses, redirections after wild-goose chases, all combined with a dollop of rigorous observation and logical reasoning...”

Aha. Scientific discovery only looks clean, cold and rational after it’s done. It’s a lot more fun when it’s happening.

Abduction and Straightjackets

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Now, what happens when the subjective — the scientist’s views, prejudices and beliefs — enter the picture?

Well, sometimes it can be very, very hard to change your mind.

Here’s Stephen Jay Gould again in Dinosaur in a Haystack

“We say, in our mythology, that old theories die when new observations derail them. But too often — I would say usually — theories act as straightjackets to channel observations toward their support and to forestall potentially refuting data. Such theories cannot be rejected from within, for we will not conceptualize the disproving observations.”

Stuck in an echochamber of belief, we cannot break free.

But theories are eventually refuted. How, does this happen? The answer, it seems, is to work around the problem, to bring in theories from other disciplines:

“New theories work upon this conceptual lock as Harry Houdini reacted to literal straightjackets. We escape by importing a new theory and by making the different kinds of observations that any novel outlook must suggest.”

And this is what Feynman, as he was playing, was doing all along.

What’s the Point?

Now, here’s what scares me.

Just like the scientists, if we see the world the wrong way, we may be stuck in a mental straightjacket for our whole lives and never even notice.

The Ancients were not ignorant of this.

As a farewell quote, let’s look to a passage from Seneca’s Letters on Ethics:

“No one realizes he is grasping or avaricious. The blind at least request a guide; we wander about without one, and say, ‘It’s not that I am ambitious; this is just how one has to live at Rome. It’s not that I overspend; it’s just that city living demands certain expenditures. It’s not my fault that I am prone to anger, that I do not yet have any settled plan of life — this is just what a young person does.’ Why do we deceive ourselves? Our trouble is not external to us: it is within, right down in the vital organs. The reason it is so difficult for us to be restored to health is that we do not realize we are sick.

What straightjacket are you wearing?


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