Archive for the ‘Richard Feynman’ Category

The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man

August 27, 2007

“The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man … If you look closely enough at anything, you will see that there is nothing more exciting than the truth … No matter what you look at, if you look closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.”

The Meaning Of It All by Richard Feynman

If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation

August 17, 2007

“All scientific knowledge is uncertain”

“It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions.  They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments.”

“So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty.   Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain.  Scientists are used to this.  We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know.”

“If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation.”

The Meaning of it All by Richard Feynman

Scientific Integrity

July 18, 2007

At a commencement address in 1974 Richard Feynman spoke about scientific integrity [1]. His words ring as true today as they did then. I have extracted some particularly relevant passages:

“… scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”

“In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another. ”

“The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest; it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will–including Wesson oil.”

“We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right … although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.”

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.”

“I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is … bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.”


Fragile Knowledge

July 2, 2007

Many people are unable to apply things they learn in textbooks to things in the real world. Richard Feynman calls such textbook learning “fragile knowledge”. Here he gives an example:

“The French curve is made so that at the lowest point on each curve, no matter how you turn it, the tangent is horizontal … All the guys in the class were holding their French curve up at different angles, and discovering that, sure enough, the tangent is horizontal. They were all excited by this ‘discovery’ — even though they had already gone through a certain amount of calculus and had already ‘learned’ that the derivative (tangent) of the minimum (lowest point) of any curve is zero (horizontal). They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they ‘knew’ … I don’t know what’s the matter with people; they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way — by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.”