Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Richard Feynman: epistemocrat

Richard Feynman was an epistemocrat, and his insights on science, discovery, and humanity are worth thoughtful consideration (click here to read his bio). He received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his development of quantum electrodynamics. He also introduced and supported nanotechnology, uncovered the failure of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (the o-rings did not expand properly), provided leadership during the Manhattan Project, and served as a professor at Caltech (his physics lectures are famous). Above all, though, Feynman constantly challenged orthodox thinking in many fields as he uncovered the mysteries and wonders of our world; he was a perceptive observer. Recognizing his superb, outside-the-box thinking, Apple used Feynman for their "Think Different" ad campaign.

Here are some of Richard Feynman's insights, thoughts, and musings, taken from his book, The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist:

"The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. No one who did not have some inkling of this through observations could ever have imagined such a marvel as nature is" (10).

"The internal machinery of life, the chemistry of its parts, is something beautiful. And it turns out that all life is interconnected with all other life" (11).

"[The] freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences and, I believe, in other fields. ... I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations" (28).

"[T]o keep trying new solutions is the way to do everything" (9).

"I want to maintain ... that it is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is a hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn't get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man" (34).

"The government of the United States was developed under the idea that nobody knew how to make a government, or how to govern. The result is to invent a system to govern when you don't know how. And the way to arrange it is to permit a system, like we have, wherein new ideas can be developed and tried out and thrown away. The writers of the Constitution knew of the value of doubt. ... The fact that you are not sure means that it is possible that there is another way some day. That openness of possibility is an opportunity. Doubt and discussion are essential to progress. The United States government, in that respect, is new, it's modern, and it is scientific" (50).

"What, then, is the meaning of it all? What can we say today to dispel the mystery of existence? If we take everything into account, not only what the ancients knew, but also all those things that we have found out up to today that they didn't know, then I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think in admitting this we have probably found the open channel" (33).

"All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it" (26,27).

Clearly, as evidenced by these quotes, Richard Feynman was a skeptical empiricist and a humble trial-and-error solution searcher; directive (top-down) design rarely provided him with sufficient answers (he rederived all the "laws" of physics on his own to prove to himself that they were accurate). He theorized as little as possible, scrutinized his observations, embraced ambiguity, and openly recognized the immense importance of serendipity in discovery. Feynman marveled at nature and worked to unravel its mysteries, and, despite how much he knew about our world, he always reminded himself (and others) that new ideas, insights, solutions, remedies, breakthroughs, innovations, discoveries, understandings, concepts, and applications exist in the future that we cannot imagine nor predict right now, in the present (we are bound to stumble upon them sometime soon ... well, as long as we keep the "door to the unknown ajar").

Living in a complex world that he did not understand (he admitted this fact regularly), Feynman asserted that we must remain open to opportunities and should create safe environments for people to tinker stochastically in pursuit of solutions. For Feynman, this bottom-up, agency-driven philosophy - emerging from epoche - should inform science, government, and many other human endeavors (medicine and healthcare, for instance).

Overall, his view is hopeful and optimistic: he believes fervently in our potential to continually challenge and stretch the limits of being human; however, he feels that embracing the humble limits of being human is the process that unleashes our amazing potentials (a wonderful paradox, indeed!).