Saturday, May 8, 2010

What it means to be educated? More deeply, what it means to try to educate someone? Some nice cues I found in Richard Feynman’s unpublished lecture -- Uncreative Scientist. It was for the genius of Feynman that he could speak with impeccable intellectual honesty. It would be a sin to re-express Feynman’s ideas in my words. So let me quote him verbatim.

One characteristic of uncreative scientific students is that they remain uncreative. They do a lot of work, but they're not the same kind of guys as other guys. Their main characteristic is a desire for exactness and for precision, and for definiteness—a desire for formal rules that will be guaranteed to work and to yield results. I have to be very specific here. The main characteristic is really that they want someone to give them that exactness and precision, those definitions and those formal rules. But of course what distinguishes a creative scientist is a desire to create an exactness or a definition or a way of stating a problem. Or to create a system of rules that will guarantee that the other fools get the right answer. But the characteristic of uncreative students is to seek such exactness avidly as if there's some terrible, frightening situation if you can't get the precise definition of something. An extreme example of this attitude is what you see in educationalists—the writers of elementary textbooks and so on. I'm glad to say I do not believe that Caltech students suffer from the guaranteed-formula business to such an enormous degree. But these uncreative people all love the Baconian idea of science. They worship an elusive scientific method which they delight in trying to define as precisely as possible. That's typical of the bottom of the barrel.

Now the Baconian ideal, if I may remind you, is to record. All the scientists just run out and record things. They see everything they see and they send in samples of things from all over the world and they collect data. They bring it all in, and expect that the patterns will be there: when you put the data together and compare them, all the patterns, laws, and regularities of the world will just simply appear, and that's the way that science will develop. The thing that is missing from all this is having the imagination and judgment of what to record. And what to omit. I mean you can't look at everything, and when you try to look at everything, you can't see the pattern. I just want to add that even in Bacon's day—this was the 17th century—the scientists of the time realized that this was not science. It was only philosophical people who thought that this was a great deal because they liked this precise definition of the method of the science. Bacon eventually became Lord Chancellor, and William Harvey, his contemporary, who discovered the circulation of blood, said of Bacon's method, it is precisely the way a Lord Chancellor would do science.

The archivists of this talk comment:

Does the creative scientist, he asks, have any special skills that less creative scientists have less of? He's already considered things like judgment, value, and interest. The key to choosing problems, he tells his audience, is to multiply two things. You multiply the importance of a problem by your ability to do something about it. And of course you want a very large number to come out; otherwise you don't pursue it. And then, as you'll hear, he launches into a discussion of approximation. A skill, according to Feynman, that simply can't be taught. Either you have it or you don't.

Feynman continues:

In particular, there are one or two skills that I see in the creative physics students—but I think it applies more generally—that are missing in the noncreative ones. And that skill is how to deal with approximations. This is very difficult to teach because it's an art. Noncreative students can't learn it—it goes back to the business of them wanting something exact when what they really have to deal with is approximations.

You must approximate if you're doing physics because what you're doing is to take one view of a nearly hopelessly complicated situation. Nothing is simple. The world is enormously complicated. That definite thing you call a chair—if you look closely enough, it's indefinable. It has to be an approximation to an idea because, after all, you know that it's oxidizing slowly in the air since it's been polished this morning. Do you want to include or not include the oxide in the chair? Oh that's ridiculous! Yeah, only because it's an approximation. Has the sweat of the guy who was sitting there evaporated, or is it working its way slowly through the leather and evaporating into the air? Is that sweat part of the chair or not part of the chair? It's not important?

Well, not for certain approximate purposes like when I want to grab something to sit on. Then, it doesn't make any difference. But the fact to appreciate is that you do approximations all the time. And sometimes you leave out an important point of relevancy. And if you try to think of yourself—what you mean by you, a person—you see what it means to be approximating, and it's a rather wonderful thing. Because a person is only a pattern of motion of atoms.

After all, you eat every day and you drop pieces out in the morning, so the question is, What is you? Is it partly in the sewer? Do you consider that you or not? All the time, the stuff that you eat becomes you, and stuff that was you becomes not you. And therefore, a person is an approximate idea because as he's breathing in and out and as the oxygen is being exchanged by the various cells, the question of what part is the living creature and what part is the air that's being exchanged, and so on, is impossible to define.

I'm just trying to show you that in the simplest situations—in every situation—approximation is necessary in order to think. But it's always fun to think about the fact that it is approximate and to see what is happening.

Two words about the business of education:

I think it's very easy to make courses for uncreative scientists. That's usually the type of course that you find in the schools. And there's always a criticism of it, and there are always guys way up in the administration trying to change things so that the courses are for creative scientists too. But it's impossible to make a course for creative scientists by any formula. They say, "We want a course that explains the motivations of the scientists and explains why the subject is interesting and all this baloney." Absolutely impossible! From the top down. Here and there you'll get some teacher who will know what he's talking about, and you must have had such an experience in high school. You met a good teacher and the guy made you excited about the subject, but he cannot communicate how he did this, nor can anybody plan to organize such a thing.

One of the questions the Chicago students asked me was, Shouldn't they make a course for this? Shouldn't they make a course that explains to me the motivations of the creative scientist? And I said, "Yeah, they should. But they can't." And what they should do, if you're going to be shoulding around, instead of "shoulding" other people, "should" yourself. There are lots of books on science written by imaginative people and so on. There's lots of books on every subject—lots of stuff around to look at. That's what you should do instead of organizing a formal way by which you will become creative because there has been a course organized just for you. Don't put the trouble on somebody else. What we need is great teachers, and that we cannot create because that's the same as creative science. It's a question of personality, judgment, character, and so on.

The final thing has to do with interest. I think that a subject cannot interest you until you deeply understand the problems in that subject. Otherwise it's really not interesting. Mildly interesting, like a good book that you had fun reading but that you never remember. That's a kind of light interest. But there's also a kind of deep interest, and the true deep interest comes only when you've gotten to a point where you understand the problems and its relevancies. And then every subject is interesting. Because I think interest is an emotion. It's like love—there's not an object or property of the subject. We say, girls are lovable, but there's not an unlovable and a lovable girl. Some idiot always seems to fall in love like some madman with the unlovable girl. But that's from somebody else's viewpoint. And so why John can possibly get interested in this dull subject you could never understand. But John understands it if he's any good. And so it is just like love.

To a question why some people work for oil companies, Feynman plainly states the obvious ending it with his trademark wit:

There are many people who have different interests, you see. They want to do science because they can make a good living out of it. And their wife will be happy because they make a lot of money. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just another view of the world. It's all right, but it's not being a creative scientist. It may be that the creative scientists are not any damn good for anything but science. I wasn't trying to make them better than the guy who works to make his wife happy, because a creative scientist probably ends up making his wife miserable for all I know. Actually it's impossible, I assure you, gentlemen, to make an American woman happy. My present wife is English. I'm happy.


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