Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman’

07 MARCH, 2014

The Miraculous in the Mundane: Richard Feynman Explains How Rubber Bands Work

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“The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right.”

When you see an ordinary rubber band stretched around and holding together a stack of stuff over a long period of time, you’re actually witnessing a miraculous force of physics at work — a perpetual pounding of the atoms as they struggle to hold these chains together against the outward push of the stack, vibrating with extraordinary vigor just to accomplish this seemingly mundane task. That peeling away of the mundane to reveal the magnificent is the greatest gift and most lasting legacy of Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, secret artist. Indeed, it was this very talent that earned Feynman the moniker “the Great Explainer” and his lectures, eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics (public library), went on to become a cultural classic, brimming with his signature fusion of accessible, enthralling explanations of complex scientific phenomena and poignant meditations on the broader meaning of life.

In this short clip from the 1983 BBC series Fun to Imagine, Feynman unleashes his singular gift on the humble rubber band to illuminate its surprisingly awe-worthy embodiment of the laws of physics:

The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things, if you look at it right.

Complement with Feynman on the key to science in 63 seconds, the one sentence to be passed on to the next generation and his little-known sketches, collected by his daughter.

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06 JANUARY, 2014

The Universe in a Glass of Wine: Richard Feynman on How Everything Connects, Animated

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The Great Explainer reminds us that our divisions of life are artificial and arbitrary.

In 1961, Caltech took a leap of faith and invited Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science — to teach the introductory course in physics. At the time, Feynman was a theoretical physicist with no particular interest in students — but he soon proved to be nothing short of an enchanter of the classroom. Feynman earned himself the moniker “the Great Explainer” and his lectures went on to become a cultural classic, blending brilliant yet accessible explanations of science with poignant meditations on life’s most profound questions. They were eventually collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics (public library) — the same indispensable intellectual treat that gave us Feynman on the one sentence to be passed on to the next generation.

Among the most beautiful is the third lecture in the series, titled “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” in which Feynman, eloquent and enthralling as ever, illustrates the connectedness of everything to everything else — or what poet Diane Ackerman memorably called “the plain everythingness of everything, in cahoots with the everythingness of everything else.”

In this lovely short film for PBS, Joe Hanson of It’s Okay to be Smart — whom I have previously called a Feynman of the Tumblr era — brings Feynman’s timeless wisdom to life in a mesmerizing montage. Transcript below.

A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

The Feynman Lectures on Physics offers an abundance of more such illuminating insight and immutable truth on the interplay between science and everyday life. Complement it with Feynman on good, evil, and the Zen of science, his case for the universal responsibility of scientists, and his little-known drawings.

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24 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Beautiful and Frightening Experience of How Science Is Done: Richard Feynman’s Letter to James Watson about The Double Helix

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A manifesto for messiness and the value of the subjective in the advancement of knowledge.

In February of 1967, Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, existential sage, secret artist — visited the University of Chicago and ran into DNA godfather James Watson, also visiting at the time. Watson, who had met Feynman while guest-lecturing on the structure of DNA at Caltech, gave him the manuscript to what would become The Double Helix — one of the most influential books in the history of modern science. A couple of weeks later, Feynman sent Watson a poignant letter, included in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the fantastic anthology that also gave us The Great Explainer’s irreverent Nobel wager — addressing Watson’s fears about the book and the controversy he knew it would generate by virtue of its subjective point of view.

Feynman’s letter doesn’t just address the specific subject directly — like all of his meditations, it touches on timeless, timelier than ever points about the value of the subjective, the caveats of criticism, and above all that science is often intuitive, messy, and full of ego-transcendence. He begins by reminding us of what should be a cardinal rule of the internet:

Don’t let anybody criticize that book who hasn’t read it thru to the end. Its apparent minor faults and petty gossipy incidents fall into place as deeply meaningful and vitally necessary to your work (the book — the literary work I mean) as one comes to the end. From the irregular trivia of ordinary life mixed with a bit of scientific doodling and failure, to the intense dramatic concentration as one closes in on the truth and the final elation (plus with gradually decreasing frequency, the sudden sharp pangs of doubt) — that is how science is done. I recognize my own experiences with discovery beautifully (and perhaps for the first time!) described as the book nears its close. There it is utterly accurate.

And the entire ‘novel’ has a master plot and a deep unanswered human question at the end: Is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself? Don’t try to resolve it. Leave it that way. Publish with as little change as possible. The people who say “that is not how science is done” are wrong. In the early parts you describe the impression by one nervous young man imputing motives (possibly entirely erroneous) on how the science is done by the men around him. (I myself have not had the kind of experiences with my colleagues to lead me to think their motives were often like those you describe — I think you may be wrong — but I don’t know the individuals you knew — but no matter, you describe your impressions as a young man.) But when you describe what went on in your head as the truth haltingly staggers upon you and passes on, finally fully recognized, you are describing how science is done. I know, for I have had the same beautiful and frightening experience.

If you were really serious about wanting something on the flyleaf, tell me and we can work something out.

Feynman made good on his word: When the first hardcover edition of The Double Helix was published, it featured the following blurb from Feynman on the dust jacket: “He has described admirably how it feels to have that frightening and beautiful experience of making a great scientific discovery.”

Complement with Feynman on the meaning life, the role of scientific culture in modern society, and the universal responsibility of scientists.

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