Tag: Reid Gower

Richard Feynman on Curiosity

Following, beauty, and honors, the final part of Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower’s trilogy on Richard Feynman covers curiosity.

The world is strange. The whole universe is very strange, but you see when you look at the details that the rules of the game are very simple – the mechanical rules by which you can figure out exactly what is going to happen when the situation is simple. It is like a chess game. If you are in a corner with only a few pieces involved, you can work out exactly what is going to happen, and you can always do that when there are only a few pieces. And yet in the real game there are so many pieces that you can’t figure out what is going to happen – so there is a kind of hierarchy of different complexities. It is hard to believe. It is incredible! In fact, most people don’t believe that the behavior of, say, me is the result of lots and lots of atoms all obeying very simple rules and evolving into such a creature that a billion years of life has produced.

There is such a lot in the world. There is so much distance between the fundamental rules and the final phenomena that it is almost unbelievable that the final variety of phenomena can come from such a steady operation of such simple rules.

Do you have to build the most complex scaffolding to find out the simple rules?

But it is not complicated. It is just a lot of it. And if you start at the beginning, which nobody wants to do – I mean, you come in to me now for an interview, and you ask me about the latest discoveries that are made. Nobody ever asks about a simple, ordinary phenomenon in the street. What about those colors? We could have a nice interview, and I could explain all about the colors, butterfly wings, the whole big deal. But you don’t care about that. You want the big final result, and it is going to be complicated because I am at the end of 400 years of a very effective method of finding things out about the world.

It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with people wondering what makes something do something. And then to discover, if you try to get answers, that they are related to each other – that things that make the wind make the waves, that the motion of water is like the motion of air is like the motion of sand. The fact that things have common features. It turns out more and more universal. What we are looking for is how everything works. What makes everything work.

But it is curiosity as to where we are, what we are. It is very much more exciting to discover that we are on a ball, half of us sticking upside down and spinning around in space. It is a mysterious force which holds us on. It’s going around a great big glob of gas that is fed by a fire that is completely different from any fire that we can make (but now we can make that fire – nuclear fire.)

That [The Big Bang] is a much more exciting story to many people than the tales that other people used to make up about the universe – that we were living on the back of a turtle or something like that. They were wonderful stories, but the truth is so much more remarkable. So what’s the pleasure in physics for me is that it is revealed that the truth is so remarkable, so amazing, and I have this disease – like many other people who have studied far enough to begin to understand a little of how things work. They are fascinated by it, and this fascination drives them on to such an extent that they have been able to convince governments and so on to keep supporting them in this investigation.

The Joy of Finding Things Out

Canadian filmmaker Reid Gower created the Feynman Series, a trilogy of physicist Richard Feynman’s penetrating insight into domains outside of physics. Consider the first, Richard Feynman on Beauty.

Honours, the second part, shows Feynman’s healthy disrespect for authority.

I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice that other physicists use my work. I don’t need anything else. I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors. It bothers me, honors. Honors is epilets, honors is uniforms. My poppa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don’t understand myself.

Honors, and from that day to this, always bothered me. I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Science, and I had ultimately to resign. Because there was another organization, most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to be allowed to join us in our organization. Including such questions as: ‘we physicists have to stick together because there’s a very good chemist that they’re trying to get in and we haven’t got enough room…’. What’s the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten . Because the purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honor. OK? I don’t like honors.

Physicist Richard Feynman on Beauty of a Flower

Richard Feynman talking about the beauty of the natural world.

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.