[This is an Encore Post, from August 2007 — just as it appeared then. See especially the links on textbook selection processes, and “cargo cult” science, at the bottom.]
I ran into this one:
Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?
By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.
Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.
Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.
I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.
Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.
We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college. [2009 Update: James is studying physics in the wilds of Wisconsin, finals week at Lawrence University next week — study hard, and good luck, James!]
And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.
- BBC made portions of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out available for free online. These interviews include a short video of his explaining how a scientist can perceive the beauty of a flower at many different levels, beyond the artist’s view — a testament to science as a way of knowing AND appreciating life.
- Feynman’s New Zealand lectures on QED (quantum electrodynamics) in streaming video; Feynman’s 1965 Nobel was for his work inventing QED.
- Just for geography students (and teachers), the Friends of Tuva. Tuva probably still is the most obscure nation on Earth (no, it’s not a hoax).
- Feynman’s offhand remarks in 1959, which ushered in the age of magnetic media, floppy disks, and even smaller computer storage devices.
- Feynman’s posthumous guest appearance in the comic strip “Alley Oop.”
- Feynman accurately harpoons and lampoons state science textbook selection processes (pay attention, Don McLeroy!).
- Feynman sources
- A version of his essay on cargo cult science, which was adapted from the commencement address he gave at Cal Tech in 1974.