Smartness


James Gleick’s biography of physicist Richard Feynman ought to be part of all high school science classes. Not only does he chronicle the life of one of the preeminent scientists of the 20th Century, not only does he portray the chief puzzle of physics in that century clearly, he manages to convey the substance of the work in enviably accessible prose without once “dumbing down” any of it. All this while using remarkably few equations and those usually only in description of what they do, not in the numbers and symbols themselves. One comes away from the book—Genius: The Life And Science of Richard Feynman—feeling that this would not be such a difficult subject, or at least feeling that it would be as much a human endeavor as art or music or engineering or accounting.

Science is encased in an opaque mythography that seems designed to make people feel inferior. In the main, this is a consequence of language.  At one time, the language of science was abstruse in the extreme. Isaac Asimov once wrote a short story poking fun at the tortured convolutions of scientific jargon.

I say at one time. An effort has been made in recent decades to make it clearer. It occurred to some that the density and deliberate complexifying of scientific papers itself had done unintended damage to the field by making it inaccessible to the very people it is ultimately intended to benefit.  We might not have such frustrating debates going on today in the social and political realms over climate or vaccination had scientists themselves, as part of in-group cultural arcana, kept the lay public at such a distance by making what they do appear simultaneously elitist and impenetrable.

Feynman himself rejected such practices throughout his career.  He never assumed people—average people—couldn’t understand.  Just say it plain.  If you could not explain it clearly, he believed, then you yourself did not understand it. He was constantly railing against “stupid questions.”  Questions either too vague, too big, or too beside the point for any kind of reasonable answer.

But he wanted the questions. He wanted to see that spark of interest, and if he saw a glimmering he would try to fan it into flame. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Richard Feynman became one of the most important questioners in 20th Century science. Partly this was due to his idiosyncratic approach to problem-solving. For example, he rarely ever finished reading a paper by someone else.  He would read just enough to understand the problem and then work it out for himself. He didn’t want the solutions handed to him, he wanted the challenge and, evidently, deep pleasure of doing it himself. Of course, in that way he also found errors, logical inconsistencies, even fraud on occasion.  He was a prodigious calculator, often able to do complex  equations in his head. He intimidated and fascinated in equal measure.

What some mistook for slapdash, undisciplined thinking was rather underpinned by a vigorously compulsive commitment to fact and, ultimately, truth. The rigor of his work ultimately proved the equal or superior to many if not most of his contemporaries. He insisted that the universe make sense and, crucially, he was unafraid of admitting he did not know something.

He lost the love of his life while working on the atomic bomb, a perhaps unfortunate pairing of profound experiences which, while he seldom talked about either, perhaps informed his seemingly random path through post WWII physics.  He was late in receiving a Nobel Prize, partly by his inability to find the “right problem” to work on.But in the course of his search, the work he did informed and solidified work done by many others.

Feynman may have been a genius.  In a scintillating chapter, Gleick examines the subject of genius itself, partly to address the peculiar circumstance that we seem no longer to have any geniuses. This, he suggests, is a byproduct of the fact that we have so many and in a wide range of fields.  What we seem to lack is the singular personality to which the label readily appends. We have no public space anymore for an Einstein.

Or a Feynman.  But that does not mean we do not have them…or that we do not need them. Now perhaps more than ever.

Gleick has humanized Feynman in this, although in Feynman’s case that may never have been needed.  He was known for playing bongos, he was a raconteur, he spoke in a thick New York accent, and he came across often as a kind of rural wit, plainspoken and commonsensical to the core.  Yet his major work was in one of the most difficult and demanding aspects of modern science and he was a major presence. Appearances too often supplant substance.

Knowing this, Gleick also humanized the subject Feynman devoted his life to, making the science accessible and, to a surprisingly large extent, comprehensible to the nonspecialist.

In an era in which “hero” is too often applied to the physical—athletes, models, soldiers, actors—and may itself be a term corrupted by overuse and inconsistent application, it might serve us well to draw back and consider how little attention is paid to thinking and the solving of problems.  The process alone is contributory and ought not be beholden to budget committees or P&L charts or mere application review. That there are people who spend their time unraveling the mysteries of the universe, not in some mystical sense of gurus on mountaintops but in the sense of an Einstein figuring out why the universe is the way it is, should be a source of inspiration.  In the final analysis, it is likely that people like Richard Feynman give us more as a culture and a civilization than all the pseudo-philosophical mouthings of all the gurus that have ever lived.  That one can pull a device out of one’s pocket, almost anywhere on the planet, and look up any or all of those gurus is a consequence of people like Feynman figuring out the nature of the real unseen, the quantum level of reality, which, as Feynman would have insisted, is Reality.

 

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