Richard Feynman on The Key to Science

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

In this video from the 60s, Richard Feynman explains, very simply, the key to science with his timeless wisdom. It is the capacity to be wrong that moves us forward.

In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First we guess it; then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right; then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.

Scientists and researchers, or really, anyone who experiments, are wrong more often than they are right. After all, what is the purpose of a hypothesis? To test whether or not an idea is wrong or right; to carry us toward a definitive answer to a problem. By its very nature, it will yield more disappointments than breakthroughs. In science, if something “disagrees with experiment”, it gets tossed into the treasure trove of failed experiments. Adulation is not usually reserved for things proven to be false. In science, what’s true is more likely to survive the sands of time.

Ask anyone to name the top ten smartest people in the world, dead or alive, and Albert Einstein (Richard Feynman too) would probably appear on that list. His genius is eternal, forever changing the world, but he was not impervious to reaching incorrect conclusions. For example, we know that the universe is constantly expanding but in 1917, Einstein theorized that it was static (“temporally infinite but spatially finite”).

There is something beautiful about ignorance…as long as one has the desire to expand the limits of their knowledge so that ignorance remains ephemeral. Oxymoronic as it may be, being wrong leads us to a better understanding of the world and ourselves.