1) Read the entire Meaning of It All first, making notes. This is essential—although the effort that went into the creation of this guide has been significant, it can not replace reading the book.
2) Then read as much of this guide as you wish. The recommended minimum for everyone might be:
3) Re-read the entire Meaning of It All. Many of you may be surprised by your change of perception.
4) It is my prediction (and hope) that in the process, many of you will fall in love with Feynman and the ideas he represents, and will be coming back for more, again and again.
Richard Phillips Feynman was born on May 11, 1918 in New York. By the age of 15 he taught himself differential and integral calculus. He obtained his Ph.D. from Princeton University; his biographer James Gleick wrote: “At twenty-three…there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science.” When Feynman gave his first seminar at Princeton, Albert Einstein came to listen.
In World War II Feynman joined the Manhattan project building the first nuclear weapons; at age 24 he was appointed a group leader at Los Alamos National Lab. He was known for mixing science with mischief, for example when he was cracking the safes containing the most secret documents just for the fun of it, and maybe to point out weaknesses of security; he was sure to always close the safe (after leaving a written note inside).
In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize for his fundamental contribution to Quantum Electrodynamics—the “QED” theory that explains, in Dirac’s words, “much of physics and all of chemistry.”
Gradually, Feynman developed an extraordinary teaching ability (witness the famous “Feynman Lectures on Physics” and the Oerstead Medal). With his easily recognizable accent of a “philosopher from Brooklyn,” he mixed the most advanced concepts in physics with jokes, clever ideas and deep insights into the human condition.
In his “extracurricular activities” Feynman cracked a Mayan code, played bongo drums and planned a trip to Tuva to hear the art of throat singing. In 1986, he helped solve the Challenger space shuttle disaster on live TV during the Committee Hearing.
Beginning in 1978, Feynman went through four major surgeries for cancer, with remarkable courage and equanimity. He died on February 15, 1988.
In his personal life Feynman was a loving husband, then a wild womanizer, then a loving husband again. He was very kind most of the time, but very rude some of the time. He was modest and self-aggrandizing at the same time. He was an extraordinary human being, and to study the complexities of his life will help you to deal with the complexities of your own.
(Please note: it is strongly recommended to read the entire book first.)
It is a great pity that of the many Feynman texts available, it is this one that does not have at least an audio, if not video, available. People often comment that much of Feynman comes a little flat on paper, without his inimitable Brooklyn accent and his charming mannerism.
And yet, this is a great book, quite singular in its choice of topics. While freely admitting that he is not an “expert” at discussing many of the issues, he proceeds to do just that. Feynman had a low opinion of scholarly philosophy, and it seems as if he wanted to show what a “folk-philosopher” could contribute. And indeed—I find myself much more touched—both intellectually as well as emotionally—by Feynman’s “amateurish” rambling on imagination, doubt, and God, than by learned papers and books by specialists. It is a great mind that speaks—as Marvin Goldberger writes in Most of the Good Stuff—for Feynman, “it didn’t matter what the subject was; everything was a challenge to be understood, and usually in a totally unexpected way. He approached problems with the attitude of a brilliant child unencumbered with inhibitions of previous knowledge.”
The first lecture has three main themes: first is imagination. To me, pages 10-11 represent scientific poetry of the utmost beauty and significance.
The second theme is uncertainty in science. The discussion takes most of the lecture, and it concludes with the third main theme—the value of doubt. The penultimate paragraph of chapter 1 (starting with “This freedom of doubt is…”) should be engraved at the entrance to every university, worldwide.
In the second lecture, Feynman addresses the title subject (p. 33). And in a rather rambling way he formulates an important principle: not only is it OK not to know what “the meaning of it all” is, admitting that we do not know is a necessary condition for any progress. This may seem like a platitude, but it should give fundamentalists of all stripes something to think about. And indeed: you turn the page and read: “And so I don’t feel that I could give three lectures on the subject of the impact of scientific ideas on other ideas without frankly and completely discussing the relation of science and religion.” And so he does, in a typical Feynman down-to-earth fashion: “A young man of a religious family goes to the university, say, and studies science….” And a tour-de-force discussion follows, with gems of sheer poetry embedded throughout the entire discussion (see for example the middle paragraph on p. 39). It is extremely instructive to compare Feynman with the much more “literate” Steven Weinberg and the chapter “What about God?” in his book Dreams of a Final Theory, and then with the combative attitude of the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens.
And the second lecture ends with a freewheeling discussion of moral values, leading directly to Russia, Poland, East Germany (remember: this was 1963), anticommunism, and more. Much of the detail is now obsolete, but we certainly could use Feynman’s folk wisdom today.
The best characterization of the last lecture I can think of is “virtuosic rambling.” In the introduction, Feynman confesses that he has “run out of organized ideas” and that “since I already contracted to give three lectures, the only thing I can do is to give this potpourri of uncomfortable feelings” about this “unscientific age.” The result is a lecture that, at least on paper, is as long as the first two lectures combined. And it gives you a straight access to the thinking of Richard Feynman, as if in real time, i.e. “as it happens.” The first major discussion culminates with “Now such a man would never get anywhere in this country, I think” (p. 66) because “a man who gives an answer is better than a man who gives no answer, when the real fact of the matter is, in most cases, it is the other way around.” Recall Feynman’s “it is OK not to know.” Then a long discussion of what it would take to be convinced by a mind-reader is a lesson in “how to look at something scientifically.”
And then the Catholic system for determining saints, miracles, hypnosis, and calculations of probabilities are discussed (“For example, I had the most remarkable experience this evening. While coming in here, I saw license plate ANZ912. Calculate for me, please the odds that of all the license plates in the state of Washington I should happen to see ANZ912.”)
Then, after some more merriment (“Now, of course, I exaggerate slightly, as you should in all such stories”), he turns to “another, less happy, circumstance” (p.83)—the clock stopping at the moment of the death of his first, dearly beloved wife (see the Letters). But he does not dwell on it, and keeps on rambling: TV advertising (“we get perpetually insulted, our intelligence always insulted.”) And more and more. This is the part that would be most enjoyable on video!
But at the end, quite suddenly, all this rambling stops, and the lecture ends, for a Jewish atheist, in the most unexpected way, with his thoughts on the 1963 encyclical of Pope John XXIII:
I therefore consider the Encyclical of Pope John XXIII…to be one of the most remarkable occurrences of our time and a great step to the future. I can find no better expression of my beliefs of morality, of the duties and responsibilities of mankind…than is in that encyclical. I do not agree with some of the machinery which supports some of the ideas, that they spring from God, perhaps, I don’t personally believe…I don’t agree, and I will not ridicule it, and I won’t argue it….I recognize this encyclical as the beginning, possibly, of a new future where we forget, perhaps, about the theories of why we believe things, as long as we ultimately in the end, as far as action is concerned, believe the same thing.
One is tempted so say both “Amen” and “Wait a minute” to this remarkable quote, quite uncharacteristic for Feynman the ever-doubting Thomas.