In April, 1963, one of the most renowned and beloved physicists of all time gave a series of three remarkable lectures at the University of Washington. Now these never-before published-lectures are finally available in book form in The Meaning of It All. Richard Feynman is well appreciated for his contributions to 20th-century physics, but perhaps less well-known for his views on the complexities of religion, society, politics, and social issues. Here he expounds on these issues with his characteristic energy and intellectual vigor.
In the first of his lectures, entitled "The Uncertainty of Science," Feynman postulates that uncertainty is likely a good thing, because it is the parent of all learning. That is, if you know the answer, or think you do, then you will no longer seek further knowledge about that particular subject. He questions the value of science, particularly in light of the horrific uses it has been put to, "Is science of any value? I think a power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value. Once in Hawaii I was taken to see a Buddhist temple. In the temple a man said, ÔI am going to tell you something that you will never forget.' And then he said, ÔTo every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.'"In his second lecture, "The Uncertainty of Values," Feynman looks at several of our closely held beliefs and shatters them. On education: "At some time people thought that the potential that people had was not developed because everyone was ignorant and that education was the solution to the problem, that if all people were educated, we could all perhaps be Voltaires. But it turns out that falsehood and evil can be taught as easily as good. Education is a great power, but it can work either way." On war and peace: "Everybody dislikes war. Today our dream is that peace will be the solution. Without the expense of armaments, we can do whatever we want. And peace is a great tool for good or for evil. How will it be for evil? I don't know. We will see, if we ever get peace."In his third lecture, "This Unscientific Age," Feynman begins by noting his happiness at being given the opportunity to develop his ideas over the course of three lectures. Then: "I found out that I had developed them slowly and carefully, and completely, in two. I have completely run out of organized ideas. . . . So, since I already contracted to give three lectures, the only thing I can do is to give this potpourri of uncomfortable feelings without having them very well organized . . ." And this he does, taking on such diverse topics as faith healing, flying saucers, politics, psychic phenomena, TV commercials, and desert real estate.
Richard Feynman is no longer with us, so it is a rare occasion indeed that we have the opportunity to take a fresh glimpse into the inner workings of one of the finest minds of our age. Don't miss it.
Reviewed by Bruce Tierney.