This is part of the Old Friends series in which each month a classic book worth (re)discovering is highlighted.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
By Richard Feynman
Basic Books, 257 pp., $14.95
Richard Feynman was a very special person. He was there for the Manhattan Project to see the creation of the atomic bomb. Later, he won a Nobel Prize for demonstrating that anti-particles are particles traveling backward in time. He was also a gifted teacher, with an uncanny ability to make the complex simple. Above all, Richard Feynman taught us that a good scientist dispenses wisdom in addition to knowledge.
After Feynman’s death in 1988, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out collected various interviews and essays throughout Feynman’s life. Years after they were originally written, they still sparkle – able to quench curiosity like water quenches a thirst on a hot day. Consider some examples.
In one interview Feynman recalls a discussion with his cousin who was struggling with algebra. When Feynman volunteers that x=4 solves the equation 2x + 7 =15, his cousin tells him that the answer may be right, but you cannot solve the problem with arithmetic, only algebra: “They had invented a set of rules which if you followed them without thinking could produce the answer: subtract 7 from both sides, if you have a multiplier divide both sides by the multiplier and so on, and a series of steps by which you could get the answer if you didn’t understand what you were trying to do.”
When speaking about the role of scientists in the world, Feynman resists the urge to talk about the wonderful accomplishments of modern science and instead dwells on its limits, saying,
“What then is the meaning of the whole world? We do not know what the meaning of existence is. We say, as the result of studying all of the views that we have had before, we find that we do not know the meaning of existence; but in saying that we do not know the meaning of existence, we have probably found the open channel – if we will allow only that, as we progress, we leave open opportunities for alternatives, that we do not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth, but remain always uncertain…To decide upon the answer is not scientific. In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
How many philosophers and religious would have approached such a fundamental question in such a clear way?
Or how about when he speaks to teachers on the question “What is science?” and he says, “I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, ‘Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language’…You cannot. So you learned nothing except the definition.”
More enlightening than hearing Feynman’s take on specific questions is learning how he saw the world – for example how he was able to solve the riddle of the cause of the Challenger explosion. Or in how questions that get answered cascade into new questions, for instance in how flowers evolved to attract insects and then reciprocally, how did the insects evolve to take advantage of the flower. The beauty is always present, but pulling back the curtain always enhances and never diminishes the beauty of the natural world.
We live in an age where the allure of science at times seems to slip, at least among young Americans. The charismatic figures of science, such as Carl Sagan, Neil Degrasse Tyson, and Feynman himself are now needed more than ever to excite our curiosity and reposition our intellects towards the right questions. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out will always remain a great wisdom book more than a great science book, teaching us how to think and marveling at the joy that comes from discovery.
Once you’ve read it, wonderful clips of Feynman are available on YouTube. Watching Feynman talk in real life is even more beautiful than reading the musings of his brain on your own.