8. The Meaning Of It All, Richard P. Feynman

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8. The Meaning Of It All, Richard P. Feynman

Post  jrpstonecarver on Sun Feb 06, 2011 9:22 pm

The Meaning Of It All is a transcription of three lectures the famous physicist gave back in 1963, as part of the John Danz Lecture Series at the University of Washington. This book was published in 1998, ten years after Feynman died of cancer.

I am of mixed minds about this book. I have to cut it some slack because it appears to be a transcription of the lectures, lacking only the "uhms" and pauses of speech, but including the digressions and spontaneous things that happen when speaking only from notes or off the top of one's head. As a result, some of what is here is hard to follow or mixed up. I cannot fault anyone for that, and I am sure the lectures themselves were just fine because they included his gestures, pauses, and so on that added the nuances lost in the transcription. Setting aside the limitations of the format, though, there are pluses and minuses to what is here.

Feynman was brilliant, of that there is no doubt. He was also something of a polymath, with a wide array of interests and the willingness to explore many topics that other scientists of his day ignored. I admire him for those qualities.

Further, he's eminently rational in most instances discussed here. For example, in the third lecture he dismisses a slew of pseudo-sciences (astrology, quack medicine, and so on) and just plain dishonest behavior that still plague us today. All to the good. But there are times where he gets things wrong, or defines things in unusual ways.

Getting something wrong - as he does when he equates mind reading with telekinesis - I can mostly ignore. Maybe it was just something that came up spontaneously in the lecture. (Note that he effectively dismisses both items, apparently only confusing the names.) More problematic for me is when he says that religion and science don't conflict. To come to that conclusion, though, he defines religion in a particular way, and effectively excludes a lot of Christianity in the process, such that his effective claim is more like science has no conflict with some smaller subset of Christianity. In our highly polarized age, where the non-religious feel like their world is shrinking every day, and where the religious feel the same way for entirely different reasons, his statements didn't ring true.

In summary, I'm sure these lectures show something about Feynman himself and his approach to the world, but I found them a bit disorganized and not as profound as I'd hoped. Maybe I am not giving him enough credit, though. I'm quite certain that he was a lot smarter than me, and the times are very different now.
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