The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist

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9780465023943: The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist

Many appreciate Richard P. Feynman's contributions to twentieth-century physics, but few realize how engaged he was with the world around him—how deeply and thoughtfully he considered the religious, political, and social issues of his day. Now, a wonderful book—based on a previously unpublished, three-part public lecture he gave at the University of Washington in 1963—shows us this other side of Feynman, as he expounds on the inherent conflict between science and religion, people's distrust of politicians, and our universal fascination with flying saucers, faith healing, and mental telepathy. Here we see Feynman in top form: nearly bursting into a Navajo war chant, then pressing for an overhaul of the English language (if you want to know why Johnny can't read, just look at the spelling of “friend”); and, finally, ruminating on the death of his first wife from tuberculosis. This is quintessential Feynman—reflective, amusing, and ever enlightening.

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Review:

In this series of lectures originally given in 1963, which remained unpublished during Richard Feynman's lifetime, the Nobel-winning physicist thinks aloud on several "meta"--questions of science. What is the nature of the tension between science and religious faith? Why does uncertainty play such a crucial role in the scientific imagination? Is this really a scientific age?

Marked by Feynman's characteristic combination of rationality and humor, these lectures provide an intimate glimpse at the man behind the legend. "In case you are beginning to believe," he says at the start of his final lecture, "that some of the things I said before are true because I am a scientist and according to the brochure that you get I won some awards and so forth, instead of your looking at the ideas themselves and judging them directly...I will get rid of that tonight. I dedicate this lecture to showing what ridiculous conclusions and rare statements such a man as myself can make." Rare, perhaps. Irreverent, sure. But ridiculous? Not even close.

From the Publisher:

How I Found The Meaning of It All

One day in June of 1997, I was combing through the Feynman archives in the basement of CalTech. My goal was to see what unpublished gems might lie in the midst of the paper relics stored there since, several years earlier, Addison Wesley Longman's General Publishing Group had signed an agreement with Richard P. Feynman's heirs for the exclusive right to publish material from his Nachlass.

After days of poring through Feynman's handwritten equations, letters, postcards, lecture notes, and other miscellany, I came across a manuscript transcribed from three public lectures (part of the University of Washington's John Danz Memorial Lecture Series), entitled "A Scientist Looks at Society," that Feynman gave in April of 1963. For although Feynman had not yet won the greatest scientific accolade of our time, the Nobel Prize, nor had yet published his bestselling autobiography, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was already widely known for his remarkable insight into the laws of nature, for his extraordinary teaching ability, and for his famous three-volume textbook, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. By 1963, Feynman was a much sought after public speaker.

My initial delight after reading these lectures was overshadowed by the nagging fear that they had already been published somewhere. Here was Feynman on science, on society, on religion, on peace and war, on all the concerns of the modern citizen-scientist--surely someone had published this intimate look at the personal thoughts of this most respected figure! And indeed, the same folder disclosed the information that, like the previous Danz Lectures delivered by such luminaries as Fred Hoyle, the resulting manuscript would be published by the University of Washington Press in book form.

Curiously, though, the Feynman bibliography did not list any such publication, nor did Books in Print; nor did Feynman's heirs have any record of the book having been published. Finally, I reached the Press's editor, Emily Pascal (who ironically had been the series editor in 1963 when Feynman had originally given the lectures), who confirmed that the book had never been published. Not only had Feynman not signed the agreement, but he lost interest in the project after editing only the first lecture! Typical Feynman: after completing a project or lecture, he often lost interest in it; his fertile but impatient mind was already off and running after the next "in-te-rest-ing" problem. But what an exciting discovery for Feynman fans, 35 years later!

I quickly consulted with Feynman's heirs, and we signed the publishing agreement for these wonderful, prophetic, and insightful lectures, renamed The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. I hope everyone enjoys them as much as I have.

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