Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman’

28 JUNE, 2013

Happy Birthday, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: 21 Essential Reads on Education

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Bertrand Russell, Richard Feynman, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Isaac Asimov, Kio Stark, and more.

After previously requested reading lists like famous writers’ collected advice on writing, the best books of 2012, and history’s finest letters of fatherly advice, here is another omnibus of popular demand: 21 great reads on education from the Brain Pickings archives, to commemorate the birthday of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778), whose reverberating wisdom shaped modern thinking on education.

Complement with the Book Pickings education archive.

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06 MARCH, 2013

Richard Feynman on the Universal Responsibility of Scientists

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On harvesting the fruit of freedom of thought.

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life,” E. B. White wrote of the role and responsibility of the writer.

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman adds to history’s famous definitions of science and considers the responsibility of the scientist as just about the polar opposite: to be continuously informed and shaped by life, free of the despotism of opinion and the addiction to rectitude.

Speaking to the notion that “every child is a scientist,” Feynman champions the true responsibility of science education — a responsibility and purpose sadly belied by the current education system — and argues:

When we read about this in the newspaper, it says, ‘The scientist says that this discovery may have importance in the cure of cancer.’ The paper is only interested in the use of the idea, not the idea itself. Hardly anyone can understand the importance of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some children catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we have a scientist. These ideas do filter down (in spite of all the conversation about TV replacing thinking), and lots of kids get the spirit — and when they have the spirit you have a scientist. It’s too late for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children.

He then moves on to the broader role of science as a cultural force. The idea that ignorance is central to science — as well as film, media, and design — is an enduring theme, but Feynman lives up to his reputation and articulates it more beautifully and eloquently than anyone:

The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty– some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.

Echoing Rilke’s counsel to “live the questions,” Feynman traces the roots of science to the vital anti-authoritarianism of brave minds like Galileo and reminds us:

Now, we scientists … take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure — that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes that this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle. Permit us to question — to doubt, that’s all — not to be sure. And I think it is important that we do not forget the importance of this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Here lies a responsibility to society.

With his signature blend of graceful language and uncompromising conviction, Feynman echoes Bertrand Russell’s contention that “without science, democracy is impossible” and aims at the bullseye of the scientist’s responsibility:

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys, man is saved!’ and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Pair with Feynman’s timeless commencement address on integrity and Stuart Firestein’s fantastic Ignorance: How It Drives Science, one of the best science books of 2012.

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17 JANUARY, 2013

The Art of Ofey: Richard Feynman’s Little-Known Sketches & Drawings

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“I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world…this feeling about the glories of the universe.”

Just like Sylvia Plath and Queen Victoria, Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynmanchampion of scientific culture, graphic novel hero, crusader for integrity, holder of the key to science, adviser of future generations, bongo player — was a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist. He started drawing at the age of 44 in 1962, shortly after developing the visual language for his famous Feynman diagrams, after a series of amicable arguments about art vs. science with his artist-friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian — the same friend to whom Feynman’s timeless ode to a flower was in response. Eventually, the two agreed that they’d exchange lessons in art and science on alternate Sundays. Feynman went on to draw — everything from portraits of other prominent physicists and his children to sketches of strippers and very, very many female nudes — until the end of his life.

The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character (UK; public library) collects a quarter century of Feynman’s drawings, curated by his daughter Michelle, beginning with his first sketches of the human figure in 1962 and ending in 1987, the year before his death.

Dancer at Gianonni's Bar (1968)

In an introductory essay titled “But Is It Art?,” Feynman recounts his arrangement with Jerry and observes the intersection of art and science:

I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world. It’s difficult to describe because it’s an emotion. It’s analogous to the feeling one has in religion that has to do with a god that controls everything in the universe: there’s a generality aspect that you feel when you think about how things that appear so different and behave so differently are all run ‘behind the scenes’ by the same organization, the same physical laws. It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had that emotion. I could remind him, for a moment, of this feeling about the glories of the universe.

Female Posing (1968)

Equations and Sketches (1985)

Martha Bridges (1965)

Hans Bethe (date N/A)

Michelle Feynman (1981)

Sketch with Last Line by Carl Feynman, age 2 (1962)

Once Feynman decided to sell the drawings upon a friend’s suggestion, he was cautious of people fetishizing them because of his academic prominence and the sheer curiosity of a distinguished scientist who dabbles in art, so he decided to adopt a pseudonym: Ofey. Feynman explains the origin:

My friend Dudley Wright suggested ‘Au Fait,’ which means ‘It is done’ in French. I spelled it O-f-e-y, which turned out to be a name the blacks used for ‘whitey.’ But after all, I was whitey, so it was all right.

From Behind (1985)

Jirayr Zorthian (date N/A)

Nude from the Rear (1979)

Nude Sleeping (1975)

Portrait of a Stripper (1969)

In the introductory essay, Feynman also considers the differences in teaching art and teaching science, a disconnect Isaac Asimov has famously addressed in his passionate case for creativity in science education. Feynman writes:

I noticed that the teacher didn’t tell people much (the only thing he told me was my picture was too small on the page). Instead, he tried to inspire us to experiment with new approaches. I thought of how we teach physics: We have so many techniques—so many mathematical methods—that we never stop telling the students how to do things. On the other hand, the drawing teacher is afraid to tell you anything. If your lines are very heavy, the teacher can’t say, “Your lines are too heavy.” because some artist has figured out a way of making great pictures using heavy lines. The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical problems.

1 Minute Line Drawing (1985)

Portrait of a Woman (1983)

Sheet of Studies (date N/A)

Rufus (1985)

Richard Feynman's First Drawing (1962)

Though The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character is sadly long out of print and thus a collector’s item, you can find the essay “But Is It Art” in the fantastic 1985 anthology Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

It’s Okay To Be Smart; images courtesy Museum Syndicate

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