Monday, August 20, 2007
An Educational Interlude
Picking A Physicist’s Brains
I read, as I have always read, as the mood takes me and generally have about six books on the go at any one time – most likely a novel, a biography or autobiography, a psychology or psychiatry book, a collection of letters, a book on general science (very general) and a book in either Irish or Italian. I’ve been reading Richard P. Feynman’s book of collected letters called rather appropriately Don’t You Have Time To Think? on and off for the past few months. I have always been lucky to receive books as presents as well as buying them. This book was bought for me by a friend, Jackie Wogan, who is an SNA in our primary school. I am always particularly thrilled when I am the recipient of a rather well-chosen and particularly brilliant book. If you love letters or have even the slightest interest in physics you should buy this book.
What struck me about this book and I have previously quoted at length from it as regards its humanity, is its sheer integrity and honesty, especially as regards R.P.F. ’s commitment and devotion to his first wife whom he helped nurse as she died young from TB. Then the wit and humour and sheer humility of this man is breath-taking to say the least. With these letters one can cry and laugh out loud by turns.
However, here I wish to pick R. P. F.’ s mind as regards education which is my own field. I suppose that’s one of the few things I have in common with my subject – that we share an interest in the communication of ideas and in the formation of young and indeed old minds. Hence what follows represents some of the results of my random pickings!
(i) Everywhere in these letters one is confronted with Richard Feynman’s enthusiasm for his subject. This, to my mind, is one of the most important qualities any teacher at any level in our education system should have. I remember reading in Russell’s famous History of Western Philosophy a definition of enthusiasm as being “drunk with the very presence of God within oneself.” (This is a metaphor obviously, but is literally what en-thus-iasm means, i.e., en-god-ed as it were)
(ii) Follow Your Heart: This has long been one of my own pieces of advice to youngsters at school. Follow what you are interested in. It has always both amazed and alarmed me how some parents wish to live out their unfulfilled dreams in their offspring without a thought as to what their children wish to do in life. Here’s what R. P. F. says about the academic future of a friend’s 15 year old son: “He must have freedom to pursue his delight.” And to another young person he gave this advice: “Work hard to find something that fascinates you.” (Op.cit., p. x )
(iii) Think for Yourself. It took me a long time myself to learn this lesson. Way back in 1985 while I was working on a Master’s thesis my director said to me: “I don’t want to know what Dr. X or Y or Z thinks - I want to know what Tim Quinlan thinks. Brian MacNamara SJ was the proud possessor of many qualifications, and it was he who taught me to think for myself. As Timothy Ferris says in the wonderful introduction to Feynman’s book, R. P. F. had no time for the “sage on the stage” and often advised his students to follow their own thought processes and good clear logic not the statements of authorities no matter who they were. I loved this answer to a physics student which shows both R. P. F. ’s commitment to good logical thinking, his questioning of authority (even himself) and his sheer humility: “You should in science, believe logic and arguments, carefully drawn, and not authorities. You also read the book (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol 2, Ch 5) correctly and understood it. I made a mistake, so the book is wrong… I goofed. And you goofed too for believing me.” (Op.cit., p. 290)
(iv) A Socratic Approach. Those of us who have even a little education in the rudiments of Philosophy and Logic will be acquainted with the Socratic approach to both argumentation and knowledge. It’s all about argument and counter-argument to find basic contradictions in any thesis proposed. (It’s rather like a form of cross examination of a witness in a court case).
(v) Socrates was a great needler or, as he called it, a gadfly. It did not win him any friends among the needled and in the end it backfired on him, as wisdom so often does on the wise when they come into contact with the foolish. And so he ended up with the cup of hemlock in his hand - proof that the mindless hath its reasons the mind knows not of but had better learn about if it wants to go on living. The greatest knowledge we can possess, Socrates maintained, the only knowledge that matters a damn, is the awareness of our boundless, fathomless ignorance, something his greatest disciple and diligent biographer Plato could never quite grasp, for all his obvious, peacock-like spectacle of brilliance. R. P. F. liked rejecting the easy answers similar to our friend Socrates. He was able to tolerate ambiguity and accept his own ignorance. “I can live with doubt and uncertainty,” he said on many occasions during his life and in many places in these letters. “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” (op. cit., p. xi.) In 1963 he told a Senate audience that he felt a responsibility as a scientist to know “the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance." (op. cit., p. xi)
(vi) The importance of good intentions or motives. I have found that great scholars are mostly humble individuals, following naturally from the foregoing two points. Feynman was similarly a man of great humility and authenticity. He was well aware of his own shortcomings and often throughout these letters refers to the fact that he was not that good at languages and literature, but that he excelled in Math and Science. Typically he took the trouble to reply to amateur scientists, high school students and even “cranks” as long as their enquiries struck him as arising from honest intentions.
(vii) R. P. F believed in what we may term the Uncertainty Principle. The truth is neither simple nor clear. Sometimes I feel we should use the plural of this word, as the singular tends to mislead us into thinking that there is an abstract body of truth somewhere out there. Anyway, here is a nice quote from R. P. F. on truth in both the Sciences and in the Humanities: “truth in physics is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.” (op. cit., p. 301 – in a letter defending the appointment of Dr La Belle as Caltech’s first tenured female professor (Professor of English).
(viii) Let education be a lifetime adventure. R. P. F. had interesting hobbies like safe cracking and playing the bongo drums. He also learnt to draw in his forties. All you adults out there take notice. You’re never too late to learn something new.
(ix) By playing games you learn. Michelle, his daughter, and editor of these lovely letters says this: “The household I grew up in was similarly unusual. We played many games. On camping trips, we would go to great lengths to put ourselves in the middle of nowhere…On Sunday mornings my father would often forego reading the newspaper in favour of a wild hour of loud, often discordant music, drumming, and storytelling with my brother and me.” (op. cit., p. xvii.)
(x) Have a laugh and plenty of fun while you work. Here’s Michelle again: “He showed us all how to look at the world. He showed me how to laugh. For that and for so much more, I thank him.” (op. cit., p. xxi)
(xi) A university like Princeton should be “an idea factory” (op. cit. p. 84). All universities should be this!
(xii) A positive pedagogy: “People love to learn something; they are “entertained” enormously by being allowed to understand a little bit of something they never understood before. One must have faith in the subject and in people’s interest in it.” (op. cit., p 98, letter from 1955). There is much solid advice there for all teachers, whether they be young or old!
(xiii) On how to select people for jobs, academics even for lecturing posts or students for courses: “There is today, in my opinion, no science capable of adequately selecting or judging people. So I doubt that any intelligent method is known… a student who has been at the very top of his class for all his previous schooling, finding himself below average at Cal Tech may have a 2:1 chance to get discourages and drop out, for psychological reasons. No matter how we select them, half the students are below average when they get here.” (op. cit., p. 135.)
(xiv) Everybody’s good at something. In a letter to a friend about his son only getting a C in Physics R. P. F. wrote: “Do not be too mad at Mike for his C in physics. I got a C in English Literature. Maybe I never would have received a prize (Nobel) in physics if I had been better in English.” (op. cit., p 185).
(xv) Give as many subjects a say as possible, but don’t teach too much: “Science should not overwhelm the other subjects. Too much of a good thing will give everyone indigestion. Also, are we already in danger of a general crisis from teacher overload?” (op. cit., p. 216)
(xvi) Books are not Teachers: “I believe that a book should be only an assistance to a good teacher… Stay human, and on your pupil’s side.” (op. cit., p. 218)
(xvii) There is so much more than could be garnered from this wonderful book of letters, but I’ll finish here with his advice to a young prospective physicist: “The man happy in his work is not the narrow specialist, nor the well-rounded man, but the man who is doing what he loves to do. You must fall in love with some activity.” (op. cit., p. 229).