Econstudentlog

The pleasure of finding things out (I?)

As I put it in my goodreads review of the book, “I felt in good company while reading this book“. Some of the ideas in the book are by now well known, for example some of the interview snippets also included in the book have been added to youtube and have been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people (I added a couple of them to my ‘about’ page some years ago, and they’re still there, these are enjoyable videos to watch and they have aged well!) (the overlap between the book’s text and the sound recordings available is not 100 % for this material, but it’s close enough that I assume these were the same interviews). Others ideas and pieces I would assume to be less well known, for example Feynman’s encounter with Uri Geller in the latter’s hotel room, where he was investigating the latter’s supposed abilities related to mind reading and key bending..

I have added some sample quotes from the book below. It’s a good book, recommended.

“My interest in science is to simply find out about the world, and the more I find out the better it is, like, to find out. […] You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about […] I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.”

“Some people look at the activity of the brain in action and see that in many respects it surpasses the computer of today, and in many other respects the computer surpasses ourselves. This inspires people to design machines that can do more. What often happens is that an engineer has an idea of how the brain works (in his opinion) and then designs a machine that behaves that way. This new machine may in fact work very well. But, I must warn you that that does not tell us anything about how the brain actually works, nor is it necessary to ever really know that, in order to make a computer very capable. It is not necessary to understand the way birds flap their wings and how the feathers are designed in order to make a flying machine. It is not necessary to understand the lever system in the legs of a cheetah – an animal that runs fast – in order to make an automobile with wheels that goes very fast. It is therefore not necessary to imitate the behavior of Nature in detail in order to engineer a device which can in many respects surpass Nature’s abilities.”

“These ideas and techniques [of scientific investigation] , of course, you all know. I’ll just review them […] The first is the matter of judging evidence – well, the first thing really is, before you begin you must not know the answer. So you begin by being uncertain as to what the answer is. This is very, very important […] The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer there is no need to gather any evidence about it. […] We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. […] Authority may be a hint as to what the truth is, but it is not the source of information. As long as it’s possible, we should disregard authority whenever the observations disagree with it. […] Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”

“If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: “I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?” Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers? […] There is always some crazy stuff. There is an infinite amount of crazy stuff, […] the environment is actively, intensely unscientific. There is talk about telepathy still, although it’s dying out. There is faith-healing galore, all over. There is a whole religion of faith-healing. There’s a miracle at Lourdes where healing goes on. Now, it might be true that astrology is right. It might be true that if you go to the dentist on the day that Mars is at right angles to Venus, that it is better than if you go on a different day. It might be true that you can be cured by the miracle of Lourdes. But if it is true it ought to be investigated. Why? To improve it. If it is true then maybe we can find out if the stars do influence life; that we could make the system more powerful by investigating statistically, scientifically judging the evidence objectively, more carefully. If the healing process works at Lourdes, the question is how far from the site of the miracle can the person, who is ill, stand? Have they in fact made a mistake and the back row is really not working? Or is it working so well that there is plenty of room for more people to be arranged near the place of the miracle? Or is it possible, as it is with the saints which have recently been created in the United States–there is a saint who cured leukemia apparently indirectly – that ribbons that are touched to the sheet of the sick person (the ribbon having previously touched some relic of the saint) increase the cure of leukemia–the question is, is it gradually being diluted? You may laugh, but if you believe in the truth of the healing, then you are responsible to investigate it, to improve its efficiency and to make it satisfactory instead of cheating. For example, it may turn out that after a hundred touches it doesn’t work anymore. Now it’s also possible that the results of this investigation have other consequences, namely, that nothing is there.”

“I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy – and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he will sound as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.”

“If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

“I would like to say a word or two […] about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words. It is not science. That doesn’t mean just because it is not science that we don’t have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change centigrade to Fahrenheit. It’s necessary, but it is not exactly science. […] I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.”

“My father dealt a little bit with energy and used the term after I got a little bit of the idea about it. […] He would say, “It [a toy dog] moves because the sun is shining,” […]. I would say “No. What has that to do with the sun shining? It moved because I wound up the springs.” “And why, my friend, are you able to move to wind up this spring?” “I eat.” “What, my friend, do you eat?” “I eat plants.” “And how do they grow?” “They grow because the sun is shining.” […] The only objection in this particular case was that this was the first lesson. It must certainly come later, telling you what energy is, but not to such a simple question as “What makes a [toy] dog move?” A child should be given a child’s answer. “Open it up; let’s look at it.””

“Now the point of this is that the result of observation, even if I were unable to come to the ultimate conclusion, was a wonderful piece of gold, with a marvelous result. It was something marvelous. Suppose I were told to observe, to make a list, to write down, to do this, to look, and when I wrote my list down, it was filed with 130 other lists in the back of a notebook. I would learn that the result of observation is relatively dull, that nothing much comes of it. I think it is very important – at least it was to me – that if you are going to teach people to make observations, you should show that something wonderful can come from them. […] [During my life] every once in a while there was the gold of a new understanding that I had learned to expect when I was a kid, the result of observation. For I did not learn that observation was not worthwhile. […] The world looks so different after learning science. For example, the trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into trees, and in the ash is the small remnant of the part which did not come from air, that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them. They are very inspiring, and they can be used to inspire others.”

“Physicists are trying to find out how nature behaves; they may talk carelessly about some “ultimate particle” because that’s the way nature looks at a given moment, but . . . Suppose people are exploring a new continent, OK? They see water coming along the ground, they’ve seen that before, and they call it “rivers.” So they say they’re exploring to find the headwaters, they go upriver, and sure enough, there they are, it’s all going very well. But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system’s different: There’s a great big lake, or springs, or the rivers run in a circle. You might say, “Aha! They’ve failed!” but not at all! The real reason they were doing it was to explore the land. If it turned out not to be headwaters, they might be slightly embarrassed at their carelessness in explaining themselves, but no more than that. As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you’re looking for the innermost wheel – but it might not be that way, in which case you’re looking for whatever the hell it is that you find!”

 

June 20, 2019 - Posted by | Books, Physics, Science

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