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physics
jwg

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

I've been rereading The Pleasures of Finding Things Out, a collection of writings by Richard Feynman. He has always been a hero to me. I wish I were anywhere nearly as witty, brilliant, or irreverent as he was. When I was a graduate student in Physics at Columbia I remember some of my student colleagues looking down with sneers at his text book - referred to them as "Physics for Poets". I was also teaching 8th grade science at the time (that's where this picture comes from) and I found some of his approach very useful to me as a teacher stuck in the text book I had chosen for my students.

He writes how his father was such a great influence on him. When they went out bird watching, his father taught him how to observe the birds, and try to figure out what they were doing and why, and then to analyze the conclusions by testing them against other observations. (His father was a uniform salesman, not a scientist, but he certainly knew the scientific method.) Once he was with one of his friends who pointed at a bird and said "what's that". Richard didn't know its name and his friend said "what's the matter - didn't your father teach you anything?" Of course all the other kid knew was its name. How many times do we see this - people who claim to know something when all they actually know is the name?

He says that one of the things his father taught him was a disrespect for the respectable. Just because someone is wearing a uniform or has fancy epaulettes on it doesn't make him better or smarter so why should one just automatically honor a person because of his name or title. (It always got me mad when the secretary of some higher up manager who happened to have a PhD referred to him as Dr so and so. For example I'd call up asking "is Dominic (VP of Technology) in - can I come up and see him"? and the secretary says with a slight air of snootiness - "yes, Doctor Chan is in his office".

For several years I had a "Question Authority" bumper sticker on my white board which accurately reflected my attitude and actions. Once my boss came in and wrote "Why?" next to it. I thought that was a great response to the slogan. (He was a great boss since he always did everything I told him to do- some of my later bosses took at least a year of training to act that way.)

When Feynman was asked whether it was worth it winning the Nobel Prize. He said "I don't know what's its all about or worth...I don't like honors...The prize is in finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use my work - those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me." At sometime in his career he unjoined the National Academy of Sciences because he said that it seemed that essentially the only thing the organization did was to decide who else should or shouldn't be in it. "The whole thing was rotten because its purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor-okay? I don't like honors."

I really like to find out how things work. It causes many digressions and sometimes losing sight of the original objective for a while. I've often been so disappointed by colleagues who have little intellectual curiosity and just try to "get through" the process and get to the next step with understanding why or the implications.


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Being descended from an urban family I am often aware of my lack of sense about nature. I envy those who have lived close to the Land and seem to gain much more information from observation than I do, for all my love of nature. I enjoyed reading Paul Rezendes' book, The Wild Within, because it gave some insight into the way he perceives.

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