A little Feynman for Friday

May 10, 2013 • 5:41 am

Everyone says that atheists don’t have heroes, as if heroes are somehow like gods.  The “no-hero” claims comes across to me as a bit smug. Well, I have heroes, and one of them is Richard Feynman, a great physicist, science teacher, science popularizer, and fascinating human being. Yesterday‘s Telegraph, “Richard Feynman:  Life, the universe and everything,” recalls the life and work of The Great Man. The occasion is the release of the animated video shown below, which, says the paper, has gone viral.  I think it’s fine, for the sentiments are eloquent and true, but frankly I prefer to see the real Feynman himself, expatiating as he waves his hands in the air. Nevertheless, it’s worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to denigrate the unduly famous antiscientific poem of Walt Whitman, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;          5
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

That poem has always irritated me immensely, with its smug assertion that scientific understanding detracts from wonder.  Feyman dispels that bit of antiintellecturalism here:

Three excerpts from the Torygraph piece:

[Feynman] graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

. . . In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

. . . With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988. His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’”

There’s also a new BBC biopic about Feynman, “The Challenger,” which has William Hurt in the key role and concentrates on Feynman’s role in discovering the cause of the Challenger disaster (remember the O-rings?).  The Telegraph also has ‘s an interview with Hurt about the movie here,  A precis:

The 90-minute drama depicts Feynman as the outsider on the commission, fighting against the vested interests of the others, to arrive at the truth. “The bluntness of his character was something that I personally love, because I just hate being given the runaround, you know?” says Hurt. In a film full of talking heads, Hurt, in a shaggy wig, keeps things energised by imbuing Feynman with an exuberant intelligence that is gripping to watch.

Hurt as Feynman. But can he do that New York accent?

Had Feymnman lived (he died in 1988), he would have been 95 tomorrow.

h/t: Karl

113 thoughts on “A little Feynman for Friday

    1. Hitch always denied it, for one.

      I agree with Prof. Coyne: it comes across as being a bit too precious for my taste.

      1. Yes. It’s a bit like atheists saying “I don’t have any beliefs.” They’re fighting some kind of rhetorical monster in their heads and come off looking like fools.

      2. I have a vivd memory of Harlow Shapley giving a public lecture in Philadelphia in the early 1960s in which his first slide was a picture of Albert Einstein, or as Shapley referred to him, “St. Al.” He said he always used that slide for focusing the projector.

    2. The claim that atheists do not have heros is silly. But I do wonder how those who do not believe there is some form of “free will” can have heros. This is not a snark. I am just curious how one defines “hero” if you are an incompatibilist. I am certain someone will enlighten me.

      1. I don’t really understand your question. Are you saying that incompatibilists can’t admire anyone? If you’re truly a determinist, the answer is obvious: your genes and environment have joined in a way that allows your neurons to have a sensation of unstinting admiration when seeing the accomplishments and persona of another individual.

        1. Yes, I would draw a distinction. To say you admire someone is simply to state a fact. To say someone is your hero is to suggest they did something wonderful they did not have to do.

          1. +1

            Just one more example why it incompatibilism or rather claiming to be incompatibilist is very unconvincing.

          2. “To say someone is your hero is to suggest they did something wonderful they did not have to do.”

            Uh, no, it doesn’t mean that at all. If anything, a “hero” is merely a label you apply to someone you admire a lot.

            To suggest an incompatibilist can’t have a hero is a bizarre assertion, which reinforces my view that compatibilists don’t really understand the free will discussion.

            1. What a typical response.

              A person runs into a burning building to save a child risking his or her own life. Why is that heroic if we truly think there is no choice?

              If incompatibilists want to redefine and change the meaning of words, go ahead. In the meantime stop accusing everyone else as not understanding your brilliance.

              1. PS. I have no problem with incompatiblists saying there are no heroes, as some have said below. That is consistent, at least.

              2. Incompatibilist here. Yes, a person who runs into a burning building to save a child is heroic.

                And he did make a choice to run into that building! It’s just that the choice was determined by his physical brain and all the experiences it had had.

                His actions were a good model for others to consider when they make their own choices.

              3. Have you been reading this website long? No one is arguing for contracausal free will. Everyone agrees that our actions reflect our physical brains. But incompatibilists have argued at length that that this implies that people do not make choices.

              4. “But incompatibilists have argued at length that that this implies that people do not make choices.”

                This is what I mean by compatibilists not understanding the free-will discussion.

                A person running into a burning building clearly is running software in his head that makes a choice, it’s just that the choice was preordained. I think Jerry would agree with this.

                The confusion arises due to what we call in the software design field “levels of abstraction”. At one level of abstraction in computers, there are only positive and negative charges, which is rarely useful to talk about. At the next level of abstraction, we have bytes of information. At the next level, we have integers and text strings. At the next level, classes and objects, etc.

                At the lowest level of abstraction in human behavior, we have no choices. At the next level of abstraction, choices can be made, although the results were predetermined at the lower level. We normally discuss human behavior at this second level of abstraction.

              5. You are arguing the compatibilist position here and calling it incompatibilist. Dennett says the same thing in Freedom Evolves.

              6. “You are arguing the compatibilist position here and calling it incompatibilist.”

                I don’t believe there is any distinction between the two positions, but I think an incompatibilist is more likely to agree with that than a compatibilist.

                I suspect that Jerry hears what Dan Dennett says and thinks: “That’s so freaking obvious that I see no point in staking out that as a separate position.”

        2. I can see where the question comes from too. I think it is because you take special pains to label free will alone as an “illusion”. But aren’t all intellectual achievements illusions to just exactly the same extent? The accomplishments of Feynman, Schrodinger, and Darwin were the result of deterministic chains of events, weren’t they? If you’re an incompatibilist, what is there to admire in the illusions of intellectual creativity and originality?

          This is not snark on my part either. It is a question that many of us nondualist/compatibilists have raised and don’t really see that it has been addressed.

          1. If you’re a determinist but a compatibilists, my question is why you find anything more to admire than a determinist who is an incompatibilist. After all, we both believe that accomplishments are the ineluctable results of heredity and environment and not of any disembodied “will” beyond that.

            I admire these accomplishments, I suspect, for precisely the same reasons that you do: it’s fantastic that the machinery of the human mind can produce such results and thoughts. Admiration of the person is simply a reification for that, as well as a socially conditioned instinct to give approbation to that which is gratifying or socially useful.

            Really, I’m surprised one has to ask such a question given that if we’re all determinists, we all think that accomplishments come from the same place.

            1. we all think that accomplishments come from the same place.

              Do we? You think they are “the ineluctable results of heredity and environment”. I think they come from the (physically determined) workings of the brain. For me, brain and cognition are the indispensable engine of intellectual achievement. You apparently don’t consider them worth mentioning.

              Like Timothy, I’m not trying to be snarky; I’m honestly puzzled. Why do you routinely give genes top billing as causes of behavior, when the thing that sets us apart from other gene-bearing animals and gives us orders of magnitude more scope for goal-directed behavior is clearly the size and complexity of our brains? I’m not saying our behavior is free from genetic influences; clearly it’s not. Genes built our brains, after all. But quantum mechanics and natural selection weren’t thought up by genes; they’re the products of brains.

              Computers can play chess better than any human. There are math-savvy AIs that can discover “interesting” new theorems (for some definition of “interesting”). I expect the day will come (perhaps not soon) when intelligent computers will produce intellectual achievements to rival anything we can do — and genes will have nothing to do with it.

          2. Thank you Timothy. I was beginning to think that I was the only one seeing an inconsistency here.

            If you are an honest incompatibilist, then you have to accept the whole package. And that means you must be a moral nihilist. There are no heros, no villains, just the unfolding of the universe.

            Although I reject that view, I will not complain about a consistent view. Alex Rosenberg, who is an incompatibilist and a nihilist, has stated this more eloquently and more convincingly than I am able.

            1. And that means you must be a moral nihilist. There are no heros, no villains, just the unfolding of the universe.


              A thousand times, no!

              Logic clearly isn’t working, so let’s try a completely different approach.

              What’s the most popular place where we encounter heroes? Fiction, of course! And I’d hope you’d agree that the characters in a novel or a movie or a play or whatever have even less choice about their actions than real, living people. Does that make Superman or Harry Potter or Orpheus any less heroic?

              And of course their actions are predictable, if you know enough about them. In the most literal, fundamental, basic, and any other sense of the words, they wouldn’t mean anything if it were otherwise — for that which is unpredictable is random or at least chaotic.

              That’s what I personally find so baffling about the whole “free will” mess. It’s insisting that nothing means anything unless all rules are random and everything random follows rules. Purest gobbledy-gook tied up with a quasi-philosophical theological bow.

              And then the free will proponents have the gall to accuse the rationalists of inconsistency and to chide us for daring to bother getting out of bed in the morning….


              1. I said that incompatibilism implies moral nihilism, not existential nihilism. I would allow that under incompatibilism our brains can find epistemological meaning in the mechanistic unfolding of the universe, as we can in the laws of science, but not moral meaning.

              2. And where else could morality possibly come from but the actual natural universe and its normal unfolding of events? Some sort of incoherent imagined invisible sky daddy?


              3. We are really arguing past each other here, so we might as well stop.

                If you are an incompatibilist (and therefore should be a moral nihilist if you are to be logically consistent), there IS NO moral meaning, so it does not have to come from anywhere

                Where in the world would you get the idea from anything I have said on this forum that I think there is a sky daddy? Do you think everyone who disagrees with you is a faithist?

              4. Considering that you’ve just accused those who reject the philosophical construct of “free will” as incoherent of also rejecting morality, it would, indeed, be prudent of you to stop.

                Pro tip: when your philosophical necessities have no bearing on reality whatsoever, it’s your philosophy at fault, and you’re a fool to insist that reality still must somehow comport with your philosophy regardless.


      2. neil, you seem to be under the common misconception that acceptance of the incoherence of the term, “free will,” is somehow supposed to inevitably lead to defeatism.

        Such could not be further from the truth, for regardless of how “free” or not it is, we most emphatically do have a will. And it is that will which governs in all matters over which you are raising objections; the illogical freedom which you would accord to the will is irrelevant.

        By way of analogy, there not only isn’t anything north of the North Pole, that string of words doesn’t even have any meaning in the first place. But that doesn’t stop you from traveling northward, of arriving at the North Pole, or even of hovering over it in an helicopter. So why all the fuss over an inability to do something that doesn’t even mean anything at all when you can actually do everything that matters?

        As for me…my dictionary defines, “hero,” as, “a person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities: a war hero.” With the understanding that there’s an almost-identically-worded definition for “heroine,” I’d note that there are a great many people whom I admire for courage (first responders generally); outstanding achievements (typically those who have risen to the tops of their specific fields, but also those who have overcome burdensome obstacles); and noble qualities (the humanitarians).” That makes for a very large number of true heroes in my book — and I sincerely wish to see that book expand to encompass all of humanity.

        To suggest that my refusal to grant legitimacy to the religiously-tainted incoherent philosophical construct of “free will” by pretending to acknowledge that it could even theoretically apply to an actual property in an hypothetical universe somehow means that I can’t have any heroes…frankly, that kind of a suggestion is tangential and bizarre in the first place and not a small bit insulting and condescending in the second place.



        1. LOL, I love the fact that incompatibilists cannot see their inconsistency here.

          Should I admire my air-bag as a hero for deploying and saving my life? According to an incompatibilist, a war hero has no more choice than my airbag. This was the argument made for miscreants on the moral reponsibility thread.

          Sorry if you feel insulted.

          1. Just because the outcome is determined by a set of rules doesn’t mean that no choice is made.

            And it should be quite obvious that the choices made by an airbag are, quite dramatically, quantitatively and qualitatively different from those made by, say, a firefighter with a great deal of general-purpose intelligence, a self-preservation instinct finely honed by a few billion years of evolution, and a family of his own at home.

            While the airbag, of course, isn’t heroic, you should, however, consider Walter Linderer, John Hedrik, Allen Breed, and a great many other automotive safety engineers to be heroes.

            Shall I now toss out gratuitous insults at feeble-mined compatibilists too stoopid to grasp such a simple concept, or would you rather keep the tone of the discussion in line with the preferences of our host?



            1. Where is my tone impolite? Where have I called anyone stupid? It is you who just tossed out the insult. Because it is backhanded, doesn’t make it any less insulting.

              If people say one thing on one thread and say what appeats to be a contradictory thing on another, I will point it out. If that violates the rules of this forum, I will be gone.

  1. Feynman is the quintessential teacher: his unbridled enthusiasm leaves no doubt in the audience that science is fun, that knowledge is anything but boring, and that understanding is the greatest joy there is. Listening to him talk about even the most complex subjects, we suddenly feel smarter… everything clicks, everything makes sense. And we somehow feel ourselves involved in the great adventure that is the discovery of the universe we live in. How can superstition and mumbo-jumbo, even dressed up in flowery prose, compare to that?

    1. I totally agree. The first lecture I heard from him as a Caltech undergrad was in Introductory Biology, in which he, with amazing verve, took us through the metabolic pathway usingg chalk and a blackboard. I later learned that every so often he liked to take a semester off from physics and poke around the Biology Dividion to see what was interesting. (Of course, many of the biology professors were former physicists, notably Semour Benzer and Max Delbruck [is there any way to put an umlaut on the U?].)

      1. You lucky, lucky thing.

        I had a public school education that did its very best to beat any joy and excitement I might have about science right the hell out of me.

        If not for “St. Al” (I like that so much), Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, it would have succeeded.

      2. [is there any way to put an umlaut on the U?]

        In Windows: Start → All Programs → Accessories → System Tools → Character Map.
        I think you’ll find every special character you’ve ever dreamed of using. Just Select, Copy and Paste. “Max Delbrück”.



          1. Sadly, I can’t find a character for a thumbed nose! I had a feeling someone would tell me that it’s easier on a Mac, and at this time of day you were odds on.

          2. Or just hold down the letter – a pop up opens with possible accentsfor that letter & you just choose one:)

            1. Ha! I hadn’t discovered that yet. That’s new in Mac OS X 10.8, right? Apple is clearly trying to make Mac OS X more and more like iOS.

              I’m so used to the traditional way of doing it, it’s quicker for me. But that way easily gives you characters like ł and š that you’d have had to use a utility for. Nice.


              1. I think it might be new. I always would forget how to add characters then one day I must’ve held down the key too hard and was happy to discover this feature! The nice thing is you can hold down the key, get the pop up then click the number that corresponds to the accent you’d like to use. It makes typing in various languages at once nice and fast! 🙂

  2. The BBC film is being rebroadcast this Sunday on BBC2 at 8pm.

    I missed it the first time around, so I’ll make sure to see it this time!

    1. It was a pretty good show to be honest. The best science drama I have seen since “Life Story” (which I really wish was released in DVD …)

      1. Agree. It was completely engrossing, even when you know the story.

        (And underscores Tyson’s point about NASA’s military funding: The assertion was that the shuttle launch went ahead despite the cold because NASA had committed to a punishingly frequent launch schedule demanded by the military to divert military budget to NASA.)


        1. That gave rise to one of my favourite Feynman quotes:
          “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

  3. Feynman – my hero….after reading his books, and his bio by Gleik. These words are with me always and provide the comfort that too many require from religion.
    From GENIUS by J Gleik
    “You see, one thing is I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different thing but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…
    I don’t have to know the answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It dosn’t frighten me.” – Richard Feynman
    shortly before his death, Feb 15 1988

    1. That’s such a wonderful quote. And of course it goes directly against the idea that people who don’t believe in magic — scientists and atheists — think they know everything and have got it all figured out.

      But no matter how often and how eloquently and how well that is denied, the image of the incurious know-it-all persists. We don’t believe in magic. We don’t accept the supernatural and spiritual truths. Look how close-minded Feynman is. He won’t consider “possibilities.”

      I hate that last phrase, by the way. It’s one of the tropes the spirituality-in-science advocates always trot out. Materialist scientists don’t “consider possibilities” like souls and vitalism and the paranormal and the idea that consciousness permeates reality. The idea that maybe the scientists DO and HAVE considered these possibilities and have rejected them for very good reasons doesn’t seem to occur to then.

      No. You have to consider the possibilities to be — at the very least — live options if you’re going to be immune to the charge that you think you know everything there is to know.

    2. One difference between me and the best scientist I ever worked with was that he tolerated uncertainty much better than I did. Among competing hypotheses I chose my favorite rather early. He did not, but waited until the data almost forced him to adopt one over the others. He seemed to enjoy ambiguity and uncertainty in a way that I did not.

  4. I’m so glad you disparage The Learn’d Astronomer because I always hated that poem. When I was first exposed to it as a young undergrad, I remember feeling like the people in my lecture hall were nothing like me.

    I had this poem in mind when I recently suggested to my alma mater that they collaborate better between the humanities and the sciences and offer courses for non science and non humanities students that are accessible to each (instead of elitist like the Arts & Sci program). Happily, they wrote back saying they liked my idea and would work on it.

    To me, Feynman seems the sort that would approve of this approach. The Ode to a Flower video is brilliantly put together and I recalled it in the Does Science Refute God debate with Lawrence Krauss and Michael Shermer vs D’souza & Hutchinson where the actress Andie MacDowell, who is in the audience, asks a question about orchids (toward the end of the video): http://youtu.be/RKNd_S3iXfs

  5. The atheists shouldn’t have heroes thing is right up there with atheists rejecting the word ‘belief’.

    It’s a sort of reverse Alain de Botton, where they reject everything that seems even kind of religious, as a “Hitler Ate Sugar” fallacy.

    It’s an inability to tell the difference between the good or neutral things religion incorporated and the negative.

  6. The riposte to Whitman is, of course, that famous quote from Richard Dawkins: “There’s real poetry in the real world. Science is the poetry of reality.”

  7. I’m sorry you found the poem so disparaging. It is a beautiful poem by one of the most gifted poets in the history of poetry. I think it’s hardly anti-scientific but rather reminding us not to lose our sense of awe and wonder(which is what leads to so much great science) during a period of history where we are working so hard and learning so much. It’s kind of a “when you are looking at the trees don’t forget about the forest” poem. I think this is especially a great reminder thinking back to my science education and remembering how “the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me” in such a stagnant way without inspiring a love of nature.

    1. One dead give-away: “mystical”:

      In the mystical moist night-air, …

      Once Whitman proclaims the night “mystical”, all’s lost for me.

      Jorge Luis Borges, who knew, admired, translated and championed Whitman’s work, became notably skeptical of such hollow, pseudo-poetical epitheta where his own writing was concerned.

      As recalled by V.S. Naipaul:

      »The Circular Ruins — an elaborate, almost science-fiction story about a dreamer discovering that he himself exists only in somebody else’s dream — begins: “Nadie lo vio desembarcar en la unánime noche.” Literally, “Nobody saw him disembark in the unanimous night.” Norman Thomas di Giovanni, who has been translating Borges full time for the last four years, and has done more than anyone else to push Borges’s work in the English-speaking world, says,

      You can imagine how much has been written about that “unanimous.” I went to Borges with two translations, “surrounding” and “encompassing.” And I said, “Borges, what did you really mean by the unanimous night? That doesn’t mean anything. If the unanimous night, why not the tea-drinking night or the card-playing night?” And I was astonished by his answer. He said, “Di Giovanni, that’s just one example of the irresponsible way I used to write.” We used “encompassing” in the translation. But a lot of the professors didn’t like losing their unanimous night….«

      V.S. Naipaul: “Comprehending Borges”, NYRB, October 19, 1972.

      1. I was never a Whitman fan though I’ll admit to enjoying the Romantic poets and writers for their idea exploration (contrasting the whining of the Victorians). Chacun à son goût indeed.

      2. While Whitman was a sort of deist, he believed in no creeds and the word “mystical” hardly needs to be any more religious or anti-scientific than does “spiritual” a word used by many to refer to a particular feeling and not to anything supernatural. Whatever, ultimately, Whitman meant by “mystical” it need not take away from a beautiful poem. There are patently religious/”anti-scientific” themes in a plethora of western poetry. I guess the question is does this make it any less beautiful/valuable? I submit that it does not. Are the great ancient Greek plays/poetry somehow less valuable because they believed in the gods of those times?

        1. But it’s not just the word “mystical”. There’s a clear implication that attempts to understand the world make Whitman “tired and sick” and that the remedy for that sickness is silence and ignorance.

          I don’t find that sentiment beautiful or valuable.

          1. I find that a little dogmatic of you. The poem, nowhere, states implicitly that the subject hates science. He simply is attending a lecture that he becomes sick and tired of and decides to go outside to enjoy nature. Maybe it’s a “enough talk, let’s go outside and see what we have been discussing”. I am not discounting your reading which I would probably lean towards in terms of what Whitman’s authorial intent was. I am saying this poem, like all poetry, is subject to a certain amount of ambiguity which is what makes poetry so wonderful.

            1. The poem, nowhere, states implicitly…

              Of course not. That’s what makes it implicit.

              …and decides to go outside to enjoy nature.

              So he can feel superior to the avid listeners still inside. The silence is “perfect”, so the lecture, by implication, is mere noise that detracts from perfection.

              Of course you’re free to interpret it as you wish, but I think there’s ample internal evidence that Whitman is sneering at the Astronomer and his audience and at the scientific worldview they represent.

          2. I don’t think Ancient Greek plays would be seen as less valuable (nor do I see Whitman’s poem as less valuable) but I can bet some may have found the political statements in The Clouds of Aristophanes repugnant whether they experienced the play in ancient or modern times.

            Whitman characterizes the astronomer and his work as unnatural almost an abomination (which would have been an apt synonym in Whitman’s time) who uses “diagrams” and math to “add, divide and measure…” while the narrator is natural – he is connected to goodness in the “mystical, moist night-air”.

            I find this repulsive….and (in a radical move of defending the Romantics as not anti-science) I take your Whitman and raise you a Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn (since we started talking about Ancient Greeks):

            “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

          3. Maybe the learn’d astronomer was dry and boring, and sucking the poetry out of the science. And/or arrogant and “If you don’t understand, it’s not because my explaination is confused but because you’re stupid.”

            I love Whitman for his rough and gruff gay love (of everything), but the poem annoys me for its internal inconsistencies. Isn’t he saying it wasn’t unaccountable why he became tired and sick? And if the lecture was dry and boring, why should he become tired and sick “soon”? And how soon? He asks but does not tell us.

            1. Maybe the learn’d astronomer was dry and boring, and sucking the poetry out of the science.

              And yet there was “much applause in the lecture-room”. So it seems the problem is not that the Astronomer is a bad speaker; it’s that Whitman feels alienated from the whole endeavor.

              1. Perhaps because he was tired and sick in the first place. Everyone has off days.

        2. Are we agreed that the choice of words in a poem is not arbitrary? Good.
          Expunge mystical; what remains? The sense of a stale, indigestible lecture, attended by a man likely ill at ease with the format, and no friend of maths. No amateur of science, either: to him the astronomer is learn’d, a “Gelehrter”, a “savant”, to use German and French terms current in Whitman’s time. Learn’d “smells of the lamp”, as Robert Graves put it, the projection of an outsider showing little understanding for the workings of experimental science.

          Enters mystical: a pivotal change. Pivotal because it turns the poem around. The poem is no longer just about the subjective reaction to a bad or incomprehensible lecture. It proclaims an alternative world-view: a decidedly anti-scientific one. Therefore, “whatever, ultimately, Whitman meant by ‘mystical’ ” is decisive. If the meaning were arbitrary, the word would be gratuitous and its choice, to quote Borges, irresponsible.
          You ask: “does this make it any less beautiful/valuable?”
          Very different categories: an aesthetic judgment vs. a judgment of value. The first is, of necessity, subjective. For me, mystical kills the poem. For me. I’m not susceptible to the mists of navel-gazing mysticism.

          You are on thin ice with your final question. Greek poetry, from the Homeric epics, Alkman and Alkaios to Lucian of Samosata, covers a very diverse spectrum of beliefs — or lack thereof. Even if we limit ourselves to classical Athenian theatre, the gods of Aischylos are hardly the gods of Euripides. There is, however, a constant in classical Greek literature: you’d be hard put to find too many instances of poets rejecting logos outright in favour of woolly mysticism. That luxury belongs to a more pampered epoch, like Whitman’s.

    2. It’s too bad that Whitman never got around to writing a poem reminding people to get out and experience nature instead of sitting inside reading poems about it.

  8. The world is full of people who praise Feynman for being such a wonderful teacher; I wonder how many of them actually took a class from him. I’d agree he was very inspiring, but he would leap ahead and leave it to others to teach the nuts and bolts of math you need. I guess because the math was intuitive to him.

  9. The reason people think that knowledge of how nature works detracts from its beauty is because taking something apart requires analytical thinking — and they want to look at nature and use their social thinking. A gift, a promise, a message that I am loved.

    It’s why astrology seems more ‘significant’ than astronomy to a lot of people. It’s more personal, more subjective, more reassuring. Analytical thought is objective.

    1. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” – Gandalf, LotR

      I used that quotation in my thesis … on high-energy collider physics.


    2. Sastra:

      But the irony behind that poem is that it is usually wonder that motivates us to dig deeper into understanding.

      If I sit outside at night looking at the stars, I want to know certain things. How big are they? What allows them to shine? Are they still in existence or did they burn out?

      I look to understand more because of my curiousity and wonder.

  10. I guess I don’t really have “heroes,” unless that could equate to “people I admire.” Feynman’s one of those for me. Not only did he have an intuitive grasp of maths that I can’t even begin to imagine, he also had a way with words, and two of the four favorite quotations on my facebook page are his.

  11. Feynman certainly was not an ivory tower kind of guy.

    I remember reading a anecdote recounted where a man attended a splashy Vegas party years back and found himself chatting with a glamorous show biz young woman. Somwhere in the conversation it came up he was reading a book by Feynman, he was not expecting it when she responded ‘yes, I knew him!’. Apparently she had been a dancer at the local bar Feynman was known to frequent. Apparently pretty personally likeable as well.

    1. I guess it depends a lot on how you define “hero.” I remember reading about a survey on who people saw as their hero and the most popular responses were “my mom” and “my dad.”

      1. That’s true. For me, a hero would need to be admirable in most every aspect. That’s impossible to judge unless you know the person. Even then, I’m more likely to call an act heroic rather than a person. Maybe I put too much weight on the title but I guess I don’t like the concept. We’re all fallible humans. I’d rather embrace our flaws than put someone on a pedestal.

  12. Let’s take another, complementary look at Feynman’s flower example and directly tie it back to Whitman.

    Whitman would agree that flowers are (or, at least, generally are) beautiful. And, if he were to take a similar position in respect to flowers as he took to astronomy, he’d be at best vaguely dismissive of the botanist’s appreciation of the flower and find much more in common with the artist.

    But the artist’s appreciation of the flower is every bit as analytical and sophisticated as the botanist’s!

    For the artist has to understand a great deal about color and light and human perception and the chemistry of pigments and geometry and shape and all the rest of the critical knowledge and skill that goes into painting a faithful representation of a flower. And, ask any painter: flowers are very hard to paint.

    So, who has the greatest appreciation of the beauty of the flower: the botanist who understands its function; the artist who understands its form; or the poet who thinks it’s pretty?

    As far as I’m concerned, the more you learn about a flower, the more beautiful it becomes. Anybody can appreciate a pretty splash of color, and everybody does. But it takes some level of artistry to also appreciate the subtle shading contrasted with specular highlights as the petals curve to the critical angle with respect to the light source, and it takes another kind of mastery to appreciate the integral role this small not-so-simple structure plays in the entire web of life — for it truly is the focal point of the reproductive process and often a critical transfer of energy (in the form of a food source).

    So, yeah. Of course. Take time to smell the flowers. But don’t stop there! That’s just the teaser, the handbill, the elevator pitch — the main event, the real beauty, is all that stuff that comes after the sniffing!



    1. Perhaps the actions of those who criticize science as subtracting from beauty can be explained in I Heart Huckabees:

      They want to peer under the surface at the big everything…but this can be a very painful process full of surprises. It can dismantle the world as you know it. That’s why most people prefer to remain on the surface of things.

      1. As Jung so eloquently noted, there is no coming to consciousness without pain. But, seeing the great lengths so many of the religious go to for the purpose of intellectual sadomasochism, one can’t help but wonder why they don’t similarly embrace the so much more intensely pleasurable agony of revelation that rational inquiry and analysis brings.



  13. I was just consulting my old (1990s) edition of Fix’s introductory astronomy text and the poem is in there, seemingly without irony. I think the real lesson if one reads it one way is that one shouldn’t be a boring lecturer!

  14. I know atheists have heroes so I would not say they don’t. However, I am an atheist who does not have heroes (simply because heroes imply rescuing, a concept I consider to be troublesome) though I admire and appreciate certain people and Feynman is one.

    Being a native New Yorker myself, I love his particular NYC accent–you can almost smell the Atlantic Ocean in it (he hated fish because he grew up in Rockaway Park in one of those huge, rickety houses). I love his zero tolerance for boredom and his hedonist approach to daily life. And I love his last words: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”

    1. “heroes imply rescuing”

      You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means. Two of Merriam-Webster’s definitions are:

      – A man admired for his achievements and noble qualities;

      – The central figure in an event, period, or movement (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hero)

      Hence, the use of the word “hero” not necessarily implies a rescue or a selfless/self-sacrificing act.

  15. I like Whitman’s poetry, and I’ve never taken The Learned Astronomer as anti-science. One of my favourite experiences is going out from a stuffy room into the fresh night air, and I like to see the poem as an appreciation of that feeling.

    Besides, I expect that astronomy lectures in Whitman’s day were a lot drier and more boring than today’s. (All those charts and tables.)

    1. > I expect that astronomy lectures in Whitman’s day were a lot drier and more boring than today’s.
      An unwarranted generalisation. My grandfather was enthusiastic about the public lectures of Camille Flammarion he had attended as a young man. As I was able to verify afterwards, those were rambunctious affairs, to which the public flowed. (Flammarion had a more than a few cuckoo ideas, but still, the appeal of popular science lectures in those days must have been considerable.)

      The Urania public astronomical observatory, smack in downtown Zurich, has been a public attraction ever since 1907, answering public demands that the observatory of the Federal Polytechnic (ETHZ) of 1864 was unable to satisfy. It is so popular to this day that it hosts a restaurant and a bar.

      When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited the observatory of the Potsdam Astrophysical Institute circa 1910, he asked its new director, Karl Schwarzschild:
      “Well now, Schwarzschild, what’s new in the skies?” Schwarzschild, unfazed:
      “Is your Majesty already acquainted with everything old?”
      I learned this anecdote from my grizzled professor of Greek philology, whose father, also a classical scholar, was in the attendance. Apparently, being a classical scholar, or just a lambda citizen, was not deemed incompatible with a keen interest in the most recent findings of astrophysical science, one hundred years ago, and a world-class astrophysicist like Schwarzschild not above imparting them. The Kaiser’s visit was not unprecedented, either; occasional visits to the Potsdam observatory by the Prussian sovereign and his retinue were de rigueur.

      1. Imagine “W” & his ilk volunteerin’ to visit a planaterium, much less an observatory. Not in the life time(s?) of this multiverse.

  16. I have always simultaneously adored Walt Whitman in general and utterly cringed at the poem about “the learned astronomer”.

    Apparently I share that sensibility with an astronomy professor at Stanford (I don’t have his name handy) who often opens his first class of the semester with a reading of that poem along with a disclaimer that Whitman is mostly great but he is going to try to discredit the sentiments of that poem.

    Thanks for mentioning it.

  17. Not only can atheists have heroes, those heroes don’t have to be atheists.

    Martin Luther King is a hero. Nelson Mandella. Ghandi.

    One can even say Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton…all religious, all heroes.

    I’m glad those people lived and made positive changes to humankind.

    One can admire someone for what they did in the real world even if you don’t agree with their supernatural belief system.

  18. Is there a link somewhere to the William Hurt/Richard Feynman film (for those of us who can’t use the BBC2 player because we’re not in the UK?)

  19. My hero too. I lived near Cal Tech in 1961 and used to david every time I passed his office. That same year I saw him give a lecture on relativty at Pasadena City College. The best line of the night was not delivered by Professor Feyman but by a perhaps 14-year old sitting in front of me, who at the end of the lecture, turned to his buddy and said: “You gotta admit that guy knows what he’s talking about!”

  20. A hero (heroine for a female) (Ancient Greek: ἥρως, hḗrōs), in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, their cult being one of the most distinctive features of ancient Greek religion.[1] A demigod is the son or daughter from one immortal and one mortal parent, an example would be Heracles, son of the mortal queen Alcmene and the god Zeus.[2]

    This is from Wikipedia. A hero was a saviour of sorts, he won the battles and made sure the nation was safe. The modern notion of an admired person still has some of the old connotations from the ancient one and explains why the religious would not expect atheists to have heroes, we don’t believe in “saviours” or other mythical creatures.

    Accepting that a “hero” is now less supernatural than in the past, I have many. Darwin of course, C Hitchens (since the rise of his irritating brother in the public sphere it is necessary to say which Hitchens), Dawkins, Douglas Adams and many more.

  21. “Had Feymnman lived (he died in 1988), he would have been 95 tomorrow.”

    ^This made my day. I knew I shared a birthday with Salvador Dalí, but had no idea Feynman was also born May 11.

  22. It was terrific television – what a wonderful guy.

    When Marcus Chown wanted him to write to his mother & explain how great physics was he wrote –
    “Physics is not the most important thing, love is.”

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