“I have this disease”: Feynman on curiosity and the wonders of life

This is about as good a statement of what motivates scientists as I’ve ever heard. It’s by Feynman, of course, but, unlike some science popularizers who seem to deliberately overdo the “wonder” stuff, what Feynman said always rang true.

Listen to a “spiritual determinist”:

I’ll add this quote from H. L. Mencken:

“The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”

h/t: Matt


  1. Jesper Both Pedersen
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have any heroes, but if I did, Feynman would be at the top of the list.

    • Merilee
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      He is my hero. This clip is fantastic!

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

        I do like what Reid Gower has done with this series. Sagan gets the same treatment.


  2. Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Every person of commitment to living I know seems to have a propelling premise. Mine is: “What’s it about?” For me, Feynman is one of the “What’s it about?” gurus.

  3. Timothy Hughbanks
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree, Feynman rings true, genuine. The Mencken quote is also very good and a very appropriate accompaniment.

  4. Griff
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    How’s this for awe Oprah?

  5. Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Some of these posts–including this one–eerily correlate to my own musings in way that seems almost telepathic. Let’s just say it’s a version of the multiple discovery phenomenon. Actually, I was just rereading Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe last night as part of a response to another blog post and came across a quote from Feynman. As a Determinist, I believe that it was predetermined but it doesn’t make it any less splendid.

    Anyway to address the topic at hand, even though I am not as fond as I used to be of Feynmman’s work, as he was a proponent of the spurious thinking of Copenhagen theory, I think his brilliance often shines through via his keen philosophical analysis of the importance of science on the whole.

    To extend this post’s topic in a more exploratory direction, in line with my most recent thinking, would anyone else here agree that the greatest achievement of science will be to “gaze out on the vast and elegant universe with a perspective of infinite clarity” or equivalently know the most sine qua non workings of Creation / mind of God (EU 387)? More simply, if possible, to have a complete and satisfying answer to the question what is Creation truly?

    • Alex
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      “Anyway to address the topic at hand, even though I am not as fond as I used to be of Feynmman’s work, as he was a proponent of the spurious thinking of Copenhagen theory,”

      Feynman was a no nonsense pragmatist in this regard, what was he to do? The physical results are not distinguishable, you can’t judge him for taking this approach. And I say that as a fan of the MWI.

    • tomh
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      PaulAinsworthFrancis wrote:

      would anyone else here agree that the greatest achievement of science will be… if possible, to have a complete and satisfying answer to the question what is Creation truly?

      I’m not sure what you mean by “Creation”, (let alone, “the most sine qua non workings of Creation / mind of God (EU 387)”), but if you mean the commonplace, how it all began, then no, I would not agree that would be the greatest achievement of science. I think that science has already achieved many things greater than that. Ask someone with polio whether it would be a greater achievement to have a polio vaccine or to know how it all began. The examples are endless, scientific achievements have improved the well-being of virtually everyone on the planet. Knowing how it all began would satisfy curiosity, but, given a choice, I would take the practical achievements we already enjoy.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      There is nothing “spurious” about Copenhagen theory, it is perfectly fine and the most used theory.

      agree that the greatest achievement of science will be to “gaze out on the vast and elegant universe with a perspective of infinite clarity” or equivalently know the most sine qua non workings of Creation / mind of God (EU 387)?

      I have no idea what any of this creationist trash talk means.

      – It is well known that the observable universe is finite, hence we can only ever achieve finite “clarity”, resolution, of observations.

      That has nothing to do with what we can observe, for example we have long since seen how the observable universe appears out of inflation from the fossil relict of the microwave background.

      – The universe isn’t a “creation”, it is a result of inflation.

      Since I just prepared a series of seminars on cosmology, I can condense it here:

      More precisely, the extent of the volume of the universe, which our observable universe is a part of, is a result of quantum fluctuations in the inflaton field, and all its structures are results of subsequent fluctuations. This is already known.

      If you ask where inflation comes from, without introducing new physics quantum cosmology tells us such system are a) dominant histories of spacetimes and b) can arise out of the quantum void by, you guessed it, more quantum fluctuations.

      The former physics is testable (see Hawking). The latter physics is the same as asking which physical systems are possible. E.g. we can probably not ask for anything more. In quantum physics everything that isn’t forbidden must happen, and of course the forbidden happens with low enough likelihood to be effectively non-existent. So that covers all that can be.

      But those are mere possible pathways. There are more such theories, none of which need “infinite clarity” or predict “creation” by magic.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Also please note I’m no cosmologist, I’m doing the seminars as a background in astrobiology. But the recent spat over black hole “firewalls” made me understand quantum cosmology, and how Hawking’s results fit into black hole physics and cosmology.

        So I’m mostly pulling his and other’s stuff together, without any technical knowledge. But I can give an entire suite of references. 🙂

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

          Well Torbjörn and tomh, you have both misconstrued and/or thoroughly misunderstood my post. First of all, I had no intention to receive such a bizarre combination of equally pedestrian and confused criticism. Are either of you even vaguely familiar with the work of Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Carver Mead, Gerardus (Gerard) ‘t Hooft, Brian Greene, or Leonard Susskind (3 of whom are already Noel Prize winners)? All but one of these men–not Greene as far as I am aware–were or are serious critics of Copenhagen theory. If you have read any of my other posts you will see that your statement “There is nothing “spurious” about Copenhagen theory, it is perfectly fine and the most used theory” falls flat on its face when it goes up against:

          Carver Mead, easily one of the greatest practical minds ever in the history of science, gives an excellent example that expresses the roots of the continued fallacious thinking of the Copenhagen School:

          “As late as 1956, Bohr and Von Neumann, the paragons of quantum theory, arrived at the Columbia laboratories of Charles Townes, who was in the process of describing his invention. With the transistor, the laser is one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Designed into every CD player and long distance telephone connection, lasers today are manufactured by the billions. At the heart of laser action is perfect alignment of the crests and troughs of myriad waves of light. Their location and momentum must be theoretically knowable. But this violates the holiest canon of Copenhagen theory: Heisenberg Uncertainty. Bohr and Von Neumann proved to be true believers in Heisenberg’s rule. Both denied that the laser was possible. When Townes showed them one in operation, they retreated artfully” (American Spectator, Sep/Oct2001, Vol. 34 Issue 7, p68 Carver Mead Spectator Interview).

          If you think that I am so naive as to need a lecture in cosmology, Torbjörn, you are quite mistaken. I am well aware of the most viable cosmological theories. Your reference to my writing as “this creationist trash talk” is insulting. In no way am I a Creationist.

          Furthermore, I presume from your name that you are Scandinavian and not a native English speaker. I am not sure if you are aware that in English the word Creation has many meanings beyond your limited reading of it as inextricably connected to creationism.

          The quote “gaze out on the vast and elegant universe with a perspective of infinite clarity” is a direct quote from Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe, so perhaps you should tell him that his work is also “trash talk.” In no way is Greene a graduate of Ivy Colleges like myself so silly as to mean infinite literally in this case, if I may offer some defense before you or anyone else jump to conclusions.

          Finally if my choice of words has confused you so much, might I suggest that you both get a copy of an English Dictionary and/or Thesaurus.

          With that rant off my chest, let me get back to what I had hoped would have been the serious and open-minded–not mired in the terrors of semantics–kind of responses to my post: something along the lines of yes I too appreciate the work of Richard Feynman, one of the greatest theoretical physicists ever, and well having a clear understanding of what Nature (in the scientific sense) truly is…

          PS Torbjorn your statement “The former physics is testable (see Hawking)” shows that you obviously blindly respect Stephen Hawking who, despite having made his name as some sort of black hole expert, certainly got burnt when Susskind–along with ‘t Hooft, per the holographic principle–proved him wrong about information loss via blackholes. For an easily accessible reference about this, see: “When announcing his result, Hawking also conceded the 1997 bet, paying Preskill with a baseball encyclopedia ‘from which information can be retrieved at will'” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_hole_information_paradox).

          In no way had I intended for this to devolve into an argument–almost all of which are ultimately sophomoric at best (CarnegiePADF)–but I found it necessary to defend my intellectual position and favorite thinkers.

          • Alex
            Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:23 am | Permalink

            “but I found it necessary to defend my intellectual position and favorite thinkers.”

            Impressive how you managed to do that without sounding pompous or condescending at all 😀

            • Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:51 am | Permalink


            • Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:06 am | Permalink

              What can I say, Alex, our Swedish commentator went too far and too soon, based on what I can only call linguistic oversights. But I bet he can speak Swedish a lot better than I can.

              As for tomh, I’m still waiting for a slightly imaginative answer. I too appreciate effective practical breakthroughs in science but perhaps I am not conveying how thoroughly mindblowing “knowing the mind of God” (a quote from Hawking if I am not mistaken, so don’t get your literal reading panties in a bunch) would be from my perspective. Think of what E=mc2 has correlated to and/or set the stage for, asides from the atomic bomb and other highly destructive inventions, and then multiply that almost infinitely–that’s knowing the mind of God; I’m talking being a combination of Q from Star Trek and like the most awesome technological civilization ever ramifications.

              • tomh
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

                PaulAinsworthFrancis wrote:

                I’m talking being a combination of Q from Star Trek and like the most awesome technological civilization ever ramification

                So for you the greatest scientific achievement would be to bring to reality outlandish and silly science fiction. Well, to each her/his own.

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

                🙂 yeah but there’s a serious side too, since our Q caliber knowledge would have to build upon ‘t Hooft, yes he is my favorite living physicist, with all of Creation as a massive computing mechanism, manifested in mindboggling complexity on a prima facie level but ultimately Deterministic and binary in nature {ie on the Planckian scale}, as his work–on Beables and Changeables–shows.

              • Alex
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 10:35 am | Permalink

                It’s very telling that you put his apostrophe correctly… who ever does? You must be a ‘t Hooft aficionado!

              • Posted October 31, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

                Actually, to render your [slightly] condescending categorization obsolete–in much the same way that Mead, ‘t Hooft et al have done to the pompous, Bohr-driven Copenhagen interpretation, which, as I hope I have conveyed, is based on an excessively statistical viewpoint and thus at best ultimately borne of anthropic artifacts–I would rather describe myself as a black Jamaican [with Asian ancestry] and a graduate of Williams College (2005) in Williamstown, MA [BA in Anthropology] with a MENSA caliber IQ and an employee of the US Air Force Reserve.

              • John Scanlon, FCD
                Posted November 2, 2013 at 12:04 am | Permalink

                Anybody who starts talking about their MENSA-level IQ in an argument is just a dipshit.
                Sorry Jerry, but there are Roolz and Roolz.

          • DV
            Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            What exactly did you mean by “Creation / mind of God” then?

            If you are not a Creationist or not a Theist, then you’re not using language to clarify. For what purpose are you using unclear metaphors?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

        Also, I find it ironic if, like Krauss implies, everything exists not because ‘something made it possible’ but because nothing was around to forbid it.

        Talk about creationists getting it completely backwards!

        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

          As stated above, I repeat: I am not a creationist. How you could have seen my statement “As a Determinist, I believe that it was predetermined but it doesn’t make it any less splendid” and continued with your insulting post is beyond me.

          • Jarek
            Posted October 30, 2013 at 3:56 am | Permalink

            Btw, Leibniz was a determinist, too.

      • Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        There is nothing “spurious” about Copenhagen theory, it is perfectly fine and the most used theory.

        For certain values of “perfect” and “fine”.


        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

          Exactly Ant (@antallan), I assume you–from the UK–were not confused by my use of the word Creation as synonymous with universe(s) / Multiverse.

        • Alex
          Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:35 am | Permalink

          The infuriating thing about the copenhagen interpretation is that it provides a perfectly consistent *prescription* to make predicitons about experiments. It fails as an explanation though because of the special role of the observer, and I think that philosophically that is an important failing for a scientific theory. When using Occam’s razor to decide say between the MWI and the copenhagen interpretation, the latter probably loses because the wave function collapse constitutes an additional complication. However, seeing occam’s razor in Bayesian terms, one can argue how much the many world interpretation should be punished for assuming realism with respect to the wave function vs. copenhagen for having this cludge of wave function collapse.

          • Posted October 30, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

            The problem with Copenhagen theory is much more than a purely philosophical one; rather, dogmatic faith in Copenhagen theory correlates to and/or contributes to potentially massive experimental oversights–as shown in the laser example. Moreover, as Carver Mead and any serious physicist will tell you, theoretical physics without sound experimental footing is obscurantist, misleading, and/or useless. It is also contrary to innovative and practical thinking, which Mead–also a prolific inventor–is so well known for utilizing.

            • Alex
              Posted October 30, 2013 at 10:24 am | Permalink

              I am a serious theoretical physicist (most of the time), and I am not aware of an experiment which would yield different outcomes if predictions are calculated in the copenhagen interpretation as opposed to say the relative state formulation. This makes the choice of interpretation a matter of taste as far as applications to science is concerned, and it is nonsensical to me to call adhering to one interpretation over the other in ones scientific work a “dogma” if they all yield identical results for measurable outcomes. Certainly, there is no effect in laser physics that cannot be calculated in the framework of the copenhagen interpretation, is there?

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 11:11 am | Permalink

                In your alacrity to defend your professional chops, you’ve missed an important nuance. Predictability
                is neither what my previous post nor the example from Carver Mead’s criticism intended to question about Copenhagen theory, which like many modern schools of thought in science have been seriously revised since
                their original formulations. As the example about the laser shows [and then extends into my ultimate point] Bohr and Von Neumann denied the possibility of the laser not because of their mathematical inability to
                predict such an invention but because of their belief in Heisenberg’s rule. Thus, had Charles Townes adhered to their point of view, in theory–of course as a Determinist I find such conjecturing almost nonsensical but let’s go with it–he would have never invented the laser. Substitute Charles Townes for countless experimental physicists/inventors and we see that potentially those who do not adhere to the
                at times fuzzy logic associated with the Copenhagen interpretation are arguably far better equipped to make practically viable discoveries.

                If you don’t want to agree with me take it up with Carver Mead, I’m sure he has more
                than enough theoretical and experimental genius to beat you in any debate–not that this is about winning or losing, but ideally about enlightenment. What happened to our discussion about Feynman and his
                philosophies about science anyway?

              • Alex
                Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                I wasn’t aware of the historical goings on during the development of the MASER, so I looked it up as well as some quotes by Carver Mead. It looks to me as if von Neumann and Bohr did not believe Townes’ claim that there could be an instrument with such a frequency stability as the MASER because they didn’t understand clearly enough how the Heisenberg uncertainty principle works as applied to many particles such as the molecules in a MASER. Contrary to what your quote of Mead seems to imply, the Heisenberg principle is absolutely valid (it’s just a fundamental fact of linear algebra and fourier analysis), it is just rather counterintuitive to apply to many particles. The MASER does NOT violate Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, it just doesn’t. If Carver Mead thinks that he’s misunderstood it, but I doubt that. It is more plausible that some of the early minds in quantum theory applied Heisenberg’s principle for observables pertaining to individual particles too naively to many particle systems like the maser.
                The way the uncertainty of the wave frequency relates to the uncertainty of the molecules’ states in the MASER is very counterintuitive, but this relation has nothing to do with the interpretations of QM. Maybe it would have been more intuitive to think about the MASER in terms of bohmian mechanics or the relative state formulation – that is quite possible and I don’t know that.
                It was only 10 years later that Glauber published his stuff on coherent states, I think it is safe to say that as smart as Bohr and von Neumann were, they simply did not understand all aspects of Quantum Mechanics as well as the following generation of scientists.

                Concerning Feynman, this gives a nice insight into his general mode of thinking 🙂

              • Posted October 30, 2013 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

                Cheers to your insights Alex; it would be interesting to bring Carver Mead into this discussion. I think he does have more than merely a rhetorical beef with the Copenhagen interpretation; i.e. I think
                he has mathematical proofs that point to significant problems in its formulation. He obviously feels very strongly that it has led physics into a very dismal realm: “It is my firm belief that the last seven decades of the twentieth will be characterized in history as the dark ages [wish he had used a better phrase] of theoretical physics.”

                He goes further in an interview from (American Spectator, Sep/Oct2001, Vol. 34 Issue 7, p68):

                “And why do you now award the verdict to Einstein?

                Bohr insisted that the laws of physics, at the most fundamental level, are statistical in nature. Physical reality consisted at its base of statistical probabilities governed by Heisenberg uncertainty.
                Bohr saw these uncertainties as intrinsic to reality itself, and he and his followers enshrined that belief in what came to be known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” of quantum theory.

                By contrast Einstein famously argued that “the Lord does not throw dice.”
                He believed that electrons were real and he wrote, in 1949, that he was “firmly convinced that the essentially statistical character of contemporary quantum
                theory is solely to be ascribed to the fact that this [theory] operates with an incomplete description of physical systems.”

                So how did Bohr and the others come to think of nature as ultimately random, discontinuous?

                They took the limitations of their cumbersome experiments as evidence for the nature of reality. Using the crude equipment of the early twentieth century, it’s amazing that physicists could get any significant results at all. So I have enormous respect for the people who were able to discern anything profound from these experiments. If they had known about the coherent quantum systems that are commonplace today, they wouldn’t have thought of using statistics as the foundation for physics.

                Statistics in this sense means what?

                That an electron is either here, or there, or some other place, and all you can know is the probability that it is in one place or the other. Bohr ended up saying that the only statements you can make at the fundamental level are statistical. You cannot grasp the reality itself,
                only probabilities related to it. They really, really, wanted to have the last word, and the only word they had was statistical. So they made their limitations the last word, saying, “Okay, the only
                knowledge that there is down deed is statistical knowledge. That’s all we can know.” That’s a very dangerous thing to say. It is always possible to gain a deeper understanding as time progresses.

                I think you will find some of the Mathematics and Physics equations to back up Mead’s claims in the work of Gerard ‘t Hooft, as well as helpful verbal explanations, specifically:

                “The point we wish to make is, that in a deterministic theory there are no wave functions, in particular no phases of wave functions; the phases we use to describe them are artifacts of our calculational procedures, and they could well be determined by what happened in
                the past. As long as this is not exactly understood, there appears to be no contradiction…

                In a deterministic theory, beables and changables are two distinct varieties of operators.
                The first an observable quantity, in the deterministic sense. A beable does not affect the ontological status of a system [hello and goodbye Heisenberg Principle], and therefore, by fiat, all beables commute with one another at all times. Operators not commuting with one or more beables are called changeables. When, out of some purported ‘free will’, an observer changes his mind as to what to measure, by modifying the setting of his or her apparatus, this could be seen as the application of a changeable. According to both Quantum Mechanics and any
                deterministic theory, applying a changeable now, at time t = 0 , implies it is applied at all times, before and after t = 0 : operators evolve.

                In Figure 1, a conceivable experiment with electrons is described. The point is not
                whether the experiment can actually be performed or not. In principle, it is possible.

                Figure 1: hypothetical experiment with two Stern-Gerlach beam splitters. The initial
                spin is in the y direction; the inhomogeneous magnetic fields splits the beam into one with
                x = 1 and one with x = −1 . The ovals are magnetic fields turning the beams back.
                After the beams reunite, the spin is again 1 in the y direction.
                The question is how to describe it in a deterministic formalism. It would be a mistake to think that, at the points A and C , σy is the beable, and at the points B1,2 it would be σz . Within Quantum Mechanics, it is clear how to describe the time evolution of these operators. If the electrons are allowed to separate and rejoin unperturbed, the beables during the moment of separation are quite complex, and they seem to be nonlocal.
                However, the usual arguments claiming that they have to be non-local, do not
                apply in our approach to determinism. Whatever the local beables are, they cannot be expressed in terms of σy or σz .

                (“Free Will Postulate” 4-7).

                It seems that ‘t Hooft has significant proof that the primary mathematical tools of current QM, especially
                of the Copenhagen interpretation, rely on what he already considers anthropic “artifacts,” i.e.
                calculations relying on wave functions and statistical proofs. I would imagine Mead’s theoretical work is in accord with this, though I must confess I have not read enough of Mead’s scholarly publications
                to assure this on his part.

                [sorry for the long post and quotations but I felt it necessary to show that this is more than just a superficial argument; there’s lot’s of brilliance–including mathematically / potentially experimentally–on the side of Einstein, Schrödinger, Mead, ‘t Hooft, Susskind et al].

                … Nice clip of Feynman. 🙂 I might have broken his rule about explanations though; who cares.

              • Posted October 31, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

                If those not familiar with the vagaries of subtextual inferences need an explanation,
                Alex’s post was condescending because instead of addressing the crux/consequences of our ongoing dialogue and admit the viability of Einstein, Schrodinger, Meade, ‘t Hooft and my position, he instead made a flippant quip likening my knowledge of ‘t Hooft to the likes of someone who has an excessively
                high amount of [potentially useless] knowledge about cigars and the like–which is after all the usual usage of the term aficionado.

              • Posted October 31, 2013 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

                meant to say the nature of subtextual inferences

              • Alex
                Posted October 31, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

                I’m sorry, you completely misinterpreted my comment as derisive when it wasn’t meant to be. When I met ‘t Hooft once, I think he said something along the lines that everyone keeps spelling his name wrong (it is tempting to write t’Hooft after all) and he would appreciate it if people got it right 🙂

              • Posted October 31, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

                No worries Alex, I apologize for having misread your intentions. Actually on a more constructive note, as a theoretical physicist, it seems that you will have a better chance of getting in touch with ‘t Hooft [again]; based on this fact, could you send him a message for me about some typographical errors that I noted in his work? I tried emailing him but I’m not sure he received it.

    • tomh
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

      tomh, you have both misconstrued and/or thoroughly misunderstood my post.

      Really? I thought you were asking for opinions on whether the greatest achievement of science would be to know the essentials of the “workings of Creation / mind of God.” Only because you said, “would anyone else here agree that the greatest achievement of science will be…” My opinion is that no, it wouldn’t be, there are many greater achievements that could be realized. Even if it were Creation with a capital C. What did I misunderstand?

  6. Alex
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I think Feynman just has this Long Island factor that makes him unable to sound more poetic, even if he’s in effect saying many of same poetic things that, say, Brian Cox, would say in his documentaries. He has this unique style of delivery. All like “Here’s some wonder for you: If it disagrees wit experiment, its WRONG.” 😀
    I like both styles.

    • Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Permalink


      I think Sagan was probably the greatest poet of the past century, and Cosmos is one of, if not the, greatest epic poems ever created.

      Feynman was a great poet, too, but not as mellifluous as Sagan. But that’s okay. Sagan’s own impressive scientific accomplishments were in a much smaller league’s than Feynman’s.


      • Alex
        Posted October 30, 2013 at 1:01 am | Permalink

        “I think Sagan was probably the greatest poet of the past century, and Cosmos is one of, if not the, greatest epic poems ever created.”

        Heh, I never thought about it that way. I have no clue about poetry though, but yes I agree. And yet I do look forward to the new version!

      • DV
        Posted October 30, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

        Come on. Sagan was a “poet”? And Cosmos an “epic poem”? What’s happening on the WEIT blog today? Just above Paul was using “Creation / mind of God” to refer to the multiverse. Why all the confusing metaphors? Can’t we just language for clarity.

        • Alex
          Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

          “Can’t we just language for clarity.”

          See, and I didn’t even know that “to language” is a verb. No wonder I can’t expressify myself more clearfully!

        • Posted October 31, 2013 at 10:20 am | Permalink

          Yes, a poet.

          “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

          “We are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to selfawareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

          I could go on, or I could just urge you to watch Cosmos.



  7. Linda Grilli Calhoun
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure what the value is of pitting curiosity against the desire to do good.

    I think both contribute to a better world.

    Personally, I would pit them both against the desire to cling to the known and the past, particularly when the known and the past produce bad results.

    I can’t remember the guy’s name, but the Hungarian doctor who first noticed that doctors and midwives who washed their hands in whatever the precursor to bleach was had a hugely diminished incidence of their patients dying of “childbed fever” was roundly condemned for this observation. He lost his teaching position, and died in penury. He now has a medical school named after him. Both his desire to understand, and his desire to do good played a part in his attempt to communicate what he learned. The people who opposed him and destroyed him are the villains here. L

    • Jim Sweeney
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

      Ignaz Semmelweis

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      I believe you are thinking of Semmelweis, and his death was more complicated, he became obsessed and erratic at first until referred to a mental institution:

      “The exact nature of Semmelweis’s affliction has been a subject of some debate. According to K Codell Carter, in his biography of Semmelweis, the exact nature of his affliction cannot be determined. “It is impossible to appraise the nature of Semmelweis’s disorder. It may have been learned helplessness, which is known to cause chronic and severe depression. It may have been Alzheimer’s disease, a type of dementia, which is associated with rapid cognitive decline and mood changes.[20]:270 It may have been third stage syphilis, a then-common disease of obstetricians who examined thousands of women at gratis institutions, or it may have been emotional exhaustion from overwork and stress.”[8]:75

      Investigative reporter Michael Volpe argued that Semmelweis was suffering from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and this is what caused the erratic, confrontational, and repellant behavior that Semmelweis exhibited, especially toward the end of his life.[21] Volpe argued that the original source of Semmelweis’s trauma could have been linked to a number of deaths including: all the women that were dying at the First Obstetricianal clinic at Vienna General Hospital in 1846, his son Jakob Kolletschka, who died at childbirth, and his colleague Gustav Adolph Michaelis, who killed himself because he blamed himself for a death from childbed fever. That trauma was repeated through Semmelweis’s many professional losses until he broke down. Semmelweis’s drinking and visiting a prostitute would have been two examples of avoidance behavior, standard in sufferers of PTSD.[21]

      In 1865 János Balassa wrote a document referring Semmelweis to a mental institution. On July 30 Ferdinand Ritter von Hebra lured him, under the pretense of visiting one of Hebra’s “new Institutes”, to a Viennese insane asylum located in Lazarettgasse (Landes-Irren-Anstalt in der Lazarettgasse).[7]:293 Semmelweis surmised what was happening and tried to leave. He was severely beaten by several guards, secured in a straitjacket and confined to a darkened cell. Apart from the straitjacket, treatments at the mental institution included dousing with cold water and administering castor oil, a laxative. He died after two weeks, on August 13, 1865, aged 47, from a gangrenous wound, possibly caused by the beating. The autopsy revealed extensive internal injuries, the cause of death pyemia—blood poisoning.[8]:76–78″

      No loss of position, no penury.

      • John Scanlon, FCD
        Posted November 2, 2013 at 3:08 am | Permalink

        Just murder.

  8. µ
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I am confused. Professor Ceiling Cat is actually a “dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes”?

    • JohnnieCanuck
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

      Cats are merely more reserved in their attention to rat holes. Some will sit for long periods of time, quietly listening for the scurrying and scratching morsels to come closer.

      There’s more than one way to catch a rat. Perhaps even watching from a hole in the ceiling works.

  9. Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on hitchens67 Atheism WOW!! Campaign.

  10. Barbara
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    So true! So very true!

  11. Lianne Byram
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Very interesting character, Mr. Feynman. Really enjoyed Lawrence Krauss’s biography of the gentleman.

  12. Ken Pidcock
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    One of my mentors had, on his office door, this quotation from H.G. Wells’s Meanwhile:

    “The disease of cancer will be banished from life by calm, unhurrying, persistent men and women, working, with every shiver of feeling controlled and suppressed, in hospitals and laboratories. And the motive that will conquer cancer will be not pity nor horror; it will be curiosity to know how and why.”
    “And the desire for service,” said Lord Tamar.
    “As the justification of that curiosity,” said Mr. Sempack, “but not as the motive. Pity never made a good doctor, love never made a good poet. Desire for service never made a discovery.”

    Granted, subsequent experience leads us to wonder if the disease of cancer will ever be banished from life.

  13. marksolock
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  14. RFW
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    Let me point everyone to the other great mind in JAC’s posting: H. L. Mencken.

    Not a scientist of any description but a great mind nonetheless. A toppler of idols, a shatterer of shibboleths (mixed metaphor alert!), an acid tongued commentator on American foibles, these days perhaps remembered most as the editor of the American Mercury, but also the compiler of the three vast tomes of his book, The American Language.

    • Cliff Melick
      Posted October 29, 2013 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

      Yup. Mencken is a trip indeed. Highly recommend the book H.L. Mencken on Religion. Fun read.

  15. Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    As a European (but a sometime resident of the States), and as a guy who grew up before the Double Helix was identified by R Franklyn, can I say that when Americans and Canadians talk of science in broad terms, it is as if in reaction to recently abandoned religious beliefs? They often seem to carry religious concepts as the only means of expression. There is something of a Cola TV advertisement in talking of all that ‘wonder’ and all that desire to unite the world in singing about all that ‘wonder’. Yes, B Cox does it, but we see it as an American thing, and the Brits gently mock B Cox for his wide-eyed innocent pleasure at the complexities.

    But Brits, and Europeans generally have long lost the ‘religious wonder’. And so it has been ‘back to basics’, and to the underlying thought that most academic knowledge has a half-life of about 50 years, and that the accumulation-theory of knowledge seems somehow not to work, and that the tendency for scientific explanation to be turned on its head so very often should and does make us wary of fixed opinions. Something has replaced biblical ‘wonder’, and it is a kind of self-deprecating amusement, and inner chuckle at the outrage that simple principles generate infinite complexity. But I could never use the word ‘creation’ to describe it all. Perhaps ‘odd’ would suffice.

    The European lubricant to expressions of astonishment, – is humour or humor! You can see that in British jokey science programs, so very often presented by stand-up comics like Dara O’Briain’s ‘Science Club’. Not so much ‘wonder’; more of ‘how weird is that?’
    Incidentally, in trying to explain to friends why and how tiny things and simple principles could lead to infinite types of objects and processes, I draw upon the counter-intuitive idea that given a large number of objects and many processes, they will, over time, form ‘stable states’, which, in turn, become platforms for fresh new objects and processes. We see it in DNA, and we see it in the history of painting, music, and of literature. Am I right in this, or is it fanciful?

  16. Dominic
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 2:13 am | Permalink

    “a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”

    Or in the case of Coyne, a cat with mouse holes!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted November 2, 2013 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      “a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.”

      Or in the case of Coyne, a cat with mouse holes!

      To quote my UCCA form (application to several universities for a place on their courses), in the “What interests you about our course?” mousetrap :
      “I absolutely love collecting pretty things, wherever I go.”
      Kleptomania as grounds for admission to a university course? Well maybe not.
      The lecturer who interviewed me, and presumably had a hand in accepting my request, looked at me some years later as I hauled a 20kg block of banded barytes-galena vein rock down a steep hill side and said “Aidan, why are you hauling that big rock down the hill? There are plenty of smaller specimens around.” And I replied “But it’s PRETTY, Prof. Alien sir.”
      No further argument there ; no argument possible. And I took the rock back to the labs, and carefully sawed it into a 5kg specimen (for me), a 14kg specimen which went into the department’s museum/ teaching collection, and a kilo slice which went into the back pocket of the man in the cutting workshop. For it was pretty.
      And I bet Prof. Alien has a slice at home too. I got his number at the interview ; he’s into pretty things too.

  17. Posted November 2, 2013 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Sarvodaya.

  18. Posted December 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    “I have this disease”: Feynman on curiosity and the wonders of life « Why Evolution Is True mulberry sale http://www.arenapersonnel.com/store.asp?module=list&brand=mulberry-sale&page=1

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