You may ask – you are bound to ask me now: What, then, is in your opinion the value of natural science? I answer: Its scope, aim and value is the same as that of any other branch of human knowledge. Nay, none of them alone, only the union of all of them, has any scope or value at all, and that is simply enough described: it is to obey the command of the Delphic deity, get to know yourself. Or, to put it in the brief, impressive rhetoric of Plotinus […] ‘And we, who are we anyhow?’
I own a little, uninteresting-looking book I found in a second hand bookshop in the UK for two-pounds-fifty. I’ve never seen it for sale in any shop since. Yet it contains thoughts about science I think are so important I’ve quoted from it in at least a dozen public presentations that I can remember, most recently last Tuesday.
If a piece of steel or a piece of salt, consisting of atoms one next to the other, can have such interesting properties; if water—which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth—can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible?
Richard Feynman – jokester, safe cracker, bongo player, artist and Nobel-winning physicist – is revered by physicists around the world for his set of undergraduate lectures. Presented by him at Caltech in 1961-63, the lectures were adapted into textbooks that would set you back one to two hundred dollars – until now.
Caltech has just released an on-line version on a new website. It’s beautifully formatted with full html links, and best of all, it’s completely free.
While the majority of the text is by nature quite technical, the first four chapters can be enjoyed, I think, by anyone. Read them and enjoy his poetic descriptions, philosophical digressions, and ecstatic appreciation of how things work – and join the rest of the world in desperately wishing you had him as your teacher.
And to whet your appetite, enjoy this animated adaptation by Fraser Davidson of one of Feynman’s most renowned monologues. Taken from the 1981 BBC documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, it features Feynman describing beautifully how science enhances his appreciation of the world around him – a fittingly poetic refutation of Keats’ famous assertation that scientists only detract from nature when they ‘unweave the rainbow‘.
Everyone who’s studied arts or sciences at university will be aware of the gulf between the faculties. Arts students think scientists are arrogant and insular, and scientists think the arts are pointless and dumb. When engineers get involved, the mutual hatred rises like in a cartoon thermometer.
The separation has been referred to as ‘The Two Cultures’ since C.P. Snow coined the term in a 1959 lecture. I just re-read the book to try and see what light Snow sheds on the problem, and whether it’s still historically relevant today, when people like Brian Cox and projects like Synapse are helping to bridge the gap.
What I found was a lecture that defined a problem while typifying it, rather than helping to solve it.
Read my review of the book here, and see if you agree with my conclusion: that while Snow and Leavis were taking pot-shots across the arts-science divide, they were missing a much bigger and more important problem that could unify the faculties – or sink them both.
From my recent review of The Meaning of It All:
In this month alone, Britain’s new chief scientist Sir Mark Walpole said his top priority was ‘ensuring that scientific knowledge translates to economic growth’, the president of Canada’s National Research Council said it will now focus only on research that is ‘commercially viable’, and the US Government just appointed a climate change skeptic to chair the House Science Committee who’s going to change the rules so only ‘groundbreaking’ research is funded. Back here in Australia, CSIRO has entered into a research agreement with BP, the company responsible for the worst accidental marine oil spill in history, to help them survey the pristine Bight ecosystem for oil reserves, and in certain divisions staff are being told to suspend nearly all communication of their work to the public and redirect the efforts toward building industry partnerships.
Public science in these countries seems to be in the hands of people who, at best, misunderstand the nature of science, or at worst are actively trying to undermine it. For clarity in these troubled times – to seek confirmation you’re not the one who’s going mad – there’s one person you turn to. The wonderful, incomparable, Richard P. Feynman.