“Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it’s a …, in Italian a …, in Chinese it’s a …, in Japanese it’s a …, etcetera. Now, you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now, let’s look at the bird.”
I began my 2023 with a couple of books – The Rebel by Albert Camus and Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The Rebel is definitely something that shouldn’t be finished in one sitting. The author is trying to understand and explain the evolution of the political ideas of our world from first principles and provides detailed arguments for his conclusions. I am currently living with that book, which means I carry it to my workplace, to leisure trips, and theatres but haven’t finished reading it. On the other hand, I reached the end of Richard Feynman’s work pretty quick and what a delightful read it was!. The book is a collection of his lectures and interviews over his lifetime and etches out the makings of a great scientist and one of the most eccentric spokespersons of Science.
The book begins with a beautiful foreword by another great theoretical physicist whose name will invariably be mentioned whenever Richard Feynman’s work is invoked. Feynman in his inimitable style takes us through his childhood, his father’s way of kindling curiosity, the future of computing (where several of his predictions have been realized in our time), role of Science, his attempt at a bit of philosophy while describing science and its role in this world, Cargo Cult Science, and his take on the relationship between science and religion. Thanks to the editor, Feynman’s tone and his directness with speech have been left almost untouched and that makes the book much more enjoyable. It is not an easy task to marry a science book with a high entertainment value but when it’s Feynman talking about science, there isn’t really much anyone needs to do. If not for anything else (there is quite a lot of anything else), I would recommend this book to anyone for that single reason.
“One of the things that my father taught me besides physics (laughs) whether it’s correct or not, was a disrespect for respectable … for certain kinds of things. For example, when I was a little boy and a rotogravure – that’s printed pictures in newspapers – first came out in the New York Times, he used to sit me again on his knees and he’d open a picture and there was a picture of the Pope and everybody bowing in front of him. And he’s say, “now look at these humans. Here’s one human standing here and all these others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one is the Pope.” – He hated the Pope anyway – and he’d say, “the difference is epaulettes” – of course not in the case of the Pope but if he was a general, it was always the uniform, the position, “but this man has the same human problems, he eats dinner like anybody else, he goes to the bathroom, he has the same kind of problems as everybody, he is a human being. Why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and his position, because of his uniform, not because of something special he did, or his honour, or something like that.” He, by the way, was in the uniform businesses, so he knew what the difference was between the man with uniform off and the uniform on: it’s the same man for him.”
The first highlight of the book for me is the recounting of his days at Los Alamos when he was all of 24, working on the Manhattan project in a team that consisted of the brightest and the most celebrated scientists of the time. His thoughts before accepting the offer to work there, his time there, and after getting the job done – make for an interesting read owing to his unique vantage point. You will easily understand when you read these pages that he never missed having fun while doing science. You will read a lot of anecdotes in the book that will make you smile and even laugh out loud at times.
When you think about the methods used to teach science, particularly in schools and colleges, barring a few exceptions, I believe we have come a long way on the wrong path. I believe the only work needed to initiate a child onto the path of developing a scientific outlook is to fuel the natural curiosity a new child come with to this world. Feynman talks about his father’s contribution in what he became in his life. What you read there is a playbook of how science teaching should happen in this world. He also weighs in on the matter with his own ideas on how science teaching should really be done. This marks the second highlight of this book for me. There are a quite a few lessons for the science teachers around the world from one of the greatest teachers ever to have lived on our planet.
This is my first read on or by Feynman and I’m hooked enough to read up a few more. The unravelling of the genius that lived not very far from us in the past is something that can’t be missed. The good thing for us readers is that Feynman loved to talk about science and there are plenty of lectures and interviews to go through. Freeman Dyson once mentioned about him thus: “half genius and half buffoon, who keeps all physicists and their children amused with his effervescent vitality.” If I may add, physicists, their children, and eventually all of the world that cares to meet him through his talks and books, Feynman keeps everyone amused.