Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Surely you're not serious, Mr. Feynman


There he is on the cover -- that messy hayloft of hair, the impish grin, like a boy who just pulled a prank on his teacher. We know at once who we are looking at: Richard Feynman, the clown prince of physics, now sadly departed.

I'm holding in my hand The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a collection of Feynman's shorter writings, published in 1999. That seems an eternity ago now, and, as I read, Feynman seems like a throwback to a vanished era.

He was, of course, a brilliant physicist. As someone who as a graduate student sat in on a few of his classes, and later used his texts in my teaching, I can vouch for the fact that he was an incomparable teacher. But what I'm reading now is his essay on science and religion, a sometime topic of this blog. His physics may be unexceled, but when it come to the big philosophical problems of life, on which he was sometimes impelled to make pronouncements (of his popular books is called The Meaning of It All), he is just a schmuck like the rest of us.

And yet, and yet…

As I read his essay on science and religion, I'm struck by two qualities so often absent from the recent debates.

First, an unrelenting emphasis on our ignorance, which Feynman insists is where science begins. Uncertainty is vital to discovery, he says, and it is only natural that for a scientist this should carry over into matters of faith. It also means that Feynman treats believers with a gentle respect. Hey, even our most confidently held knowledge is tentative and evolving.

Second, the wit. One never gets the impression that Feynman takes himself too seriously. No smirky condescension, no "take-no-prisoners" atheism. If you're not having fun, he seems to suggest, you should find something else to do.

Humility and humor generally go together. One can be confident without being dogmatic, and one can be serious with an impish grin.