Sunday, April 23, 2006

Richard Feynman

My attention was drawn this week to this fantastic 1970s "Horizon" documentary on legendary physicist and teacher Richard Feynman. He always impressed me more than most geniuses due to his insatiable interest in all aspects of the universe that surrounds us and beyond that his ability to communicate these ideas so clearly makes this investigative spirit infectious. He is one of those people who makes us think, "Ah, if only I had Professor Feynman to teach me physics at school how much better would I have done?"

But It turns out that in a way you can. When Feynman agreed to teach the introductory course in Physics at Caltech it was on the strict understanding that he would do it only once. So the university recorded and transcribed all the lectures. They've been available as books for many years but I now find out that you can get the original audio (slightly abridged) from iTunes. Joy! The best one to start with for non-pysicists such as myself is the "Six Easy Pieces" set. I am listening to these now and may well get the "Six Not So Easy Pieces" afterwards. Mawbius, with whom I work and who is a proper engineer, tells me that beyond that point in the lectures the maths begins to get hairy for delicate artists (i.e. me) but I may still give them a listen and then start asking him and Tinseltroos dumb questions about what the fancy equations mean. It is very handy to have access to really smart people to help me out in situations like these.

There is a very deep joy in learning new things and asking questions. Half the battle it seems to me is working out that there is a question to be asked, the question itself directs the thought processes that lead to an answer. That there are so many questions that have been asked, and so many more yet to be asked is amazing and beautiful to me. You could see it as overwhelming, but I prefer to be enchanted that there is so much accumulated knowledge out there which builds and shapes our world view in the ever-brightening spark of enlightenment. The more old superstitions are blown away by humans asking questions the better we make the world for us and those we inhabit it with. People like Richard Feynman who ask deep questions and questions that are interesting in and of themselves without having any apparent practical application and then provide profound answers and also communicate them to others are the shining beacons who help the rest of us explore nature and ourselves.

That there is a profound pleasure in asking questions, looking, learning and dreaming is one of the greatest qualities we as a species possess, and we need the Richard Feynmans of this world to remind us of this when we get complacent and lazy.


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