Too cool, part 17: Feynman lectures

I’m really not one for quoting others. It’s easy enough to find anyone who has the same point of view that you do, and hold them up as an example of someone famous or prestigious that ‘proves your point.’ This is perhaps doing a disservice to the other reasons to quote someone, such as appreciating the eloquence of their delivery, or simply recognizing diverse points of view, but let’s be honest and say that such uses are far outnumbered by those that are self-serving.

The late Richard Feynman, however, is one example of a science popularizer that we don’t see often enough. The insights that netted him his fame are too obscure for most people (including myself) to comprehend without a lot of work, but he was also very good at communicating just what it is that science does, and why we pursue it. His delivery lacks the polish of many presenters, his accent gives the impression that he should be running a deli someplace, but his enthusiasm and succinctness come through all the same for that:

I could do without the background music, which I consider trite for such video anymore, and it’s interesting enough without even the visuals.

As a species, we seek answers – it could arguably be said to be the most defining trait we have. But in too many cases, this other little thing gets in the way, this idea that answers must in some way serve our egos, fit our desires, or make us special – more special than we already are, which when you think about it is remarkably greedy in itself. And so we create mystical beings and realms and processes that do nothing to explain what we see around us, and only serve to foster this idea of privilege. Every little insecurity that we have, tiny internal prods towards survival behavior, gets turned into a neuroses that is addressed by one aspect or another of these strange ideas too often called, ‘truth.’ Afraid of dying? Good – that’s a survival trait, one that causes us to put it off as long as we can. But no, look! We live forever! Afraid of responsibility? Good – this is something that tells us what we decide is important and has repercussions. But no, look! Some big sky daddy is looking out for us! Feeling insignificant? Good – this is the first step towards doing something to make ourselves less so, improving ourselves. But no, look! Sky daddy made everything in the whole universe, just for us!

It’s not even a matter of liking the answers, because plenty of people have no problem liking an answer if it actually serves to explain something with accuracy. But others seem to believe that any and all answers must spoon-feed their selfish egos, or such answers somehow don’t count. Worse, they will carry this so far as to suppress what science produces because, apparently, being wrong is something they cannot possibly cope with. It’s embarrassing, really, especially when such people claim we were made by a perfect being.

Therein lies the irony: as an evolved species, it makes sense that we’re imperfect, and all of those little neuroses up there are easily seen as emergent properties – but it boggles the mind to think that we were intended to be this self-absorbed. We may indeed need salvation, but only from ourselves.

There are plenty more examples of Feynman’s lectures available, all of which expressing his delight in examination, discovery, and understanding – even when incomplete and not in the least self-affirming. That is, unless you’re one of those who finds understanding to be self-affirming.

« [previous]
[next] »