One of the greatest minds and most intriguing personalities of the twentieth century was Richard Feynman.
Feynman was professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics.
For someone of such high renown, he was exceptional in his passion to teach and communicate abstract ideas to a broad audience. Movies of and textbooks from his freshman physics classes are treasured as standards for clarity, insightfulness and as displays of the pure joy of discovery.
Being highly regarded for his integrity, he was recruited to serve on the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster. He famously demonstrated how the O-ring material used in constructing shuttle fuel tanks might fail on becoming cold by showing how it became rigid on being dipped in ice water.
This problem, and others, eventually led him to write a dissenting opinion (which was relegated to the appendix) for the commission’s published report. His popularized semi-autobiographical book entitled, “What Do You Care What Other People Think” details his struggle to understand the causes of the Challenger accident and his obligation to communicate his findings.
A statement Feynman made during the Challenger hearings reveals his approach to problem solving and his uncompromising commitment to telling the truth, “For successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
His standard of ethics would not allow him to stray from the stark reality of nature. He could not invent, or look the other way as others invented convenient, comforting answers that were not truthful.
My favorite Feynman quote comes from another of his popularized books, “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” It reflects upon his commitment to the fundamental principle that we must be objective in pursuing knowledge. Nature is what it is, no matter what we might like it to be.
The first part of the quote reads, “I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” He was not going to conjure up answers for which there was insufficient evidence just because he desired an explanation.
He goes on, “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, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean.”
He is cautioning that knowledge is tentative; there is always the possibility of our ideas being overturned. Furthermore, we have varying levels of certainty ascribed to our knowledge of subjects depending on the quality of the supporting data.
As to whether there is any deep meaning to the phenomena he does understand, he doesn’t know. But, as the entire book makes clear, it is sufficient to him that he experiences joy in the exercise of his mind in discovering the workings of the universe.
In conclusion he says, “I might think about it a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But 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, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”
In this passage he acknowledges the universe is complex and, as far as he can tell, gives no evidence of having a purpose. We can pose many questions about how and why it works, but our desire for answers, our fear of not knowing, and our desire for things to have a purpose is of no consequence to the way things are.
As brilliant and hard working as Feynman was, he knew having all the answers was beyond his grasp. Science is essential to discovery and each generation has brought us greater clarity on the answers to difficult questions. But, just because we yearn for it, we aren’t guaranteed complete understanding.
Those who knew Feynman marveled at his passion to learn, yet he would not compromise himself by pretending he understood something he did not. He wanted to grow his knowledge, but not at the cost of incorporating false premises into his vision of the universe.
Feynman was critical in bringing about insights that continue to inspire models of the fundamental processes of nature. Quantum electrodynamics gave a unified explanation for electromagnetic interactions of elementary particles while accounting for their quantum mechanical nature.
His methodologies continue to inspire models of other kinds of interactions and their associated particles. Without the insights his work inspired we would not have advanced as far as we have in understanding the basic processes of nature.
Importantly, he introduced a visual method for displaying the results of complex calculations. These Feynman diagrams are now a routine part of the language of elementary particle physics.
Despite the rigor required for advancements in the theoretical and experimental sciences, a vivid imagination is still necessary. Nature is what it is. If that means we must imagine mechanisms unfamiliar to our everyday experience, so be it. Sometimes that means being able to visualize something from another perspective.
I once heard a Feynman interview in which he talked about his childhood. He talked about how, at an early age, when discussing some everyday event he could change perspectives. He would imagine how the event might look if he were very much bigger or smaller than he actually was.
He described going on walks in the woods with his father and identifying birds. Since in China or India a bird might have different names than what we called it, he thought knowing the names was superficial and unimportant. What was important was understanding how those birds lived and their relationships with their environment.
We are fortunate to have had Richard Feynman, a person who could both make original contributions and communicate those findings to a broad audience.
Feynman could not have been the scientist he was had he not derived intense personal “pleasure in finding things out.” Nor could he have achieved his insightful understanding of nature had he not acknowledged nature as being independent of his wishes. His commitment to objectivity gave him the only peace of mind he required.
Steve Luckstead is a medical physicist in the radiation oncology department at St. Mary Medical Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.