Politics & Policy

One Feyn Man

The return of a classic.

During my test-taking years, I always tested smarter than I was. My daughter, on the other hand, is much smarter than she tests–a more difficult situation. Although I have many failings as a mother, at least I knew what to say when she scored in the bottom 15 percent of her PSAT math test a couple of years ago–she’s actually pretty good at math, and unlike me, can do algebra–and wailed in the car on the way home that she’d be “lucky to get into prostitute college.”

I told her I don’t think prostitutes have colleges. But also that Richard Feynman, the late Cal-Tech physicist, never scored above the low 120s on an I.Q. test, although he was one of the great geniuses of the 20th-century. I remember reading once about Feynman that there are two kinds of geniuses: Those we could be ourselves, if only we were a lot smarter than we are; and those we could never be, because beyond being fantastically sharp, their minds simply work differently from those of other people. Feynman was the second kind.

Yet although his serious scientific contributions–how neutrinos interact with matter, the theory of superfluidity, the fundamental work with quantum electrodynamics that won him the Nobel Prize 40 years ago–are beyond the understanding of anyone except physicists, Feynman was also a famously gifted writer and speaker whose stories about the scientific process kept laymen as well as Cal-Tech students spellbound.

Now his two bestselling collections of essays, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? have just been reissued as a single volume (edited by Ralph Leighton): Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, which includes an hour-long CD of Feynman recounting his adventures in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project.

If you are new to Feynman, I envy you the joy of first discovery. If you are not, perhaps you will agree with me that we need him now more than ever in these days that, unfortunately, seem to grow more scientifically illiterate with each passing hour. I happen to believe, for instance, in the general theological aspects of intelligent design–for many reasons, not the least of which is that the existence of people like Feynman in the world seems to suggest a witty and amazingly creative designer rather than random chance. This is a philosophical theory, however, perhaps a metaphysical one–but not by any stretch of the imagination scientific. It cannot be proved (or disproved) by empirical evidence, and it comes from my own subjective observations and ideas rather than hard facts.

None of the “debates” about evolution vs. intelligent design I’ve encountered seem to be aware that a theory by definition cannot be scientific if its proponents will only accept one conclusion or result. Naturally, any human being has hopes and preferences, which is why the double-blind test (in which experimenters as well as subjects don’t know whether they’re getting medicine or a placebo) is the gold standard in drug research, even though of course it’s not always practical.

But however much researchers might hope they’ve found, for instance, a new cure, they do not set out to prove that a specific one has to work because their religion requires them to have faith in it. Not if they expect to be taken seriously as scientists.

Unfortunately, despite the landmark Pennsylvania schools case last month, in which U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, a conservative Republican, memorably described the Dover, Penn.’s school board’s decision to teach I.D. as “breathtaking inanity,” the anti-science campaign is not dead. This week it migrated to rural central California, where a minister’s wife hopes to get away with teaching I.D. as science by throwing in the word “philosophy.”

So I think that anyone discussing intelligent design (or considering whether to, as they say, “teach the controversy”) would do well to read Feynman’s 1974 commencement address to Cal-Tech, included in Classic Feynman (from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!) as the chapter “Cargo Cult Science.” The title comes, as Feynman explains, from primitive people in the South Seas who’d experienced airplanes landing with useful things during World War II and wanted this to happen again.

For years afterward, they would station a man in a wooden hut next to an abandoned runway, with wooden pieces on his ears like headphones and bamboo sticking out like an antenna. But even though he looked just like an air-traffic controller, and fires burned as guide lights just like they did before, still no planes came.

And the one feature Feynman noticed is missing from all cargo-cult science is what he calls “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to…a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it.”

It’s difficult to discuss Feynman, by the way, and resist citing at least several passages from his work. I’ll limit myself to just a couple:

There are so many ideas about nuclear energy that are so perfectly obvious, that I’d be here all day telling you stuff,” [Feynman says in exasperation to “a very nice fella” from the U.S. Patent Office visiting him at Los Alamos.] “Example: nuclear reactor…under water…water goes in…steam goes out the other side…Pshshshsht–it’s a submarine. Or: nuclear reactor…air comes rushing in the front…heated up by nuclear reaction…out the back it goes…Boom! Through the air–it’s an airplane. Or: nuclear reactor…you have hydrogen go through the thing…Zoom!–it’s a rocket….There’s a million ideas!” I said, as I went out the door.

From that quick conversation, Feynman found himself the inadvertent owner of three patents. Here he is, years later, in a letter explaining why he declined an offer to leave Cal-Tech that would have tripled his salary:

The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do–get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things…With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess!

That jokey attitude didn’t please feminists, who once wrote him a long letter protesting a lighthearted story he’d included in a textbook about a woman driver stopped for speeding by a cop. “I had her raise valid objections to the cop’s definitions of velocity,” Feynman recalled. “The letter said I was making the woman look stupid… so I wrote a short letter back to them: ‘Don’t bug me, man!’”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Feynman found himself picketed with “Feynman Sexist Pig!” signs when he spoke to a meeting of physics teachers later in San Francisco. But he disarmed most of the protesters when he agreed that women do suffer from discrimination in physics, then basically cleared them out of the room when he added that he would therefore like to talk about something of particular interest to women–the structure of the proton.

O.K., maybe three passages: A few diehard protesters stayed till the end of Feynman’s talk, and complained that they still didn’t like that woman-driver story:

“Why did it have to be a woman driver?” they said. “You are implying that all women are bad drivers.”

“But the woman makes the cop look bad,” I said. “Why aren’t you concerned about the cop?”

“That’s what you expect from cops!” one of the protesters said. “They’re all pigs!”

“But you should be concerned,” I said. “I forgot to say in the story that the cop was a woman!”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.

Catherine SeippCatherine Seipp had been a frequent contributor to National Review Online prior to her death in 2007.


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