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The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts Of A Citizen-scientist (Helix Books)

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ISBN-13: 978-0738201665
ISBN-10: 0738201669
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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In this series of lectures originally given in 1963, which remained unpublished during Richard Feynman's lifetime, the Nobel-winning physicist thinks aloud on several "meta"--questions of science.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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

It requires an unusually strong intellect to remain relevant on a wide variety of social, religious and political issues after 35 years. Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, had just such an intellect. Originally delivered as a three-part lecture series at the University of Washington in 1963, this collection touches on such far-ranging topics as the existence or nonexistence of God; the Constitution; and UFOs. At times, Feynman's comments seem uncannily prescient, as when he discusses the dumbing-down of media: "The whole idea that the average person is unintelligent is a very dangerous idea. Even if it's true, it shouldn't be dealt with the way it's dealt with," he says here. As readers of his previous works (Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, etc.) know, Feynman, who died in 1988, was never one to shy away from strong opinions: "Incidentally, I must explain that because I am a scientist does not mean that I have not had contact with human beings," he explains. These memorable lectures confirm that Feynman's gift of insight extended from the subatomic world to the cosmic, and to the very human as well. BOMC featured selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Helix Books
  • Paperback: 133 pages
  • Publisher: Perseus Books (October 7, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738201669
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738201665
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 5.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,884,809 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard P. Feynman was born in 1918 and grew up in Far Rockaway, New York. At the age of seventeen he entered MIT and in 1939 went to Princeton, then to Los Alamos, where he joined in the effort to build the atomic bomb. Following World War II he joined the physics faculty at Cornell, then went on to Caltech in 1951, where he taught until his death in 1988. He shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965, and served with distinction on the Shuttle Commission in 1986. A commemorative stamp in his name was issued by the U.S. Postal Service in 2005.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

43 of 45 people found the following review helpful By Nathan Tyree on April 2, 2006
Format: Paperback
Richard Feynman was one of this century's greatest physicists. His accomplishments were to numerous to list completely. However, a partial accounting will help to inform the reader of this man's importance.

Feynman was part of the famous (or infamous) Manhattan Project, which culminated in the first atomic bomb. He was a member of the expert panel that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle challenger. He taught at the California Institute of Technology. He received a Nobel prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He, in fact, changed the face of quantum electrodynamics. He played an important role in Quark theory. He created what were to be known as the Feynman diagrams. He won the Oersted Medal for teaching. He wrote textbooks, which are used in universities all over the country. He was a best selling author of popular works, such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. He deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics. He was a talented drummer. He was a great story teller. He was a lover of games and tricks. He was a self taught safe cracker. He was a powerful lecturer. He was, above all, an endlessly curious fellow. This list can't even begin to note everything of importance that Feynman did, but it is a start.

The Meaning of it All collects three lectures that Feynman gave in April of 1963, at the University of Washington. These lectures were presented over three nights.

The lectures are, in order:

1. The Uncertainty of Science.

2. The Uncertainty of Values.

3. This Unscientific Age.

The first two lectures can actually be viewed as one talk, broken into two parts. The third veers off in a different direction. Let us look at the essays on an individual basis.
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44 of 48 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 4, 1999
Format: Paperback
These 3 lectures intrigued me. Why did RPF give them? Probably because no-one imagined that he would accept the invitation. It might have been a sort of 'dare', to himself. In the event it seems to have worked out fairly well, if you read them aloud in imitation of his idiom.
The first lecture (uncertainty of science) is clear and to the point: if science is taken (as RPF took it) as the getting of understanding, then uncertainty is a precondition. If there is no end to understanding (ditto) then there is no arriving at certainty. This is Feynman in the confident mode of "The Character of Physical Law".
The second lecture (uncertainty of values) starts off with another fairly safe subject: the tension between religion and science. I liked the way it was cast as a young man's (no gender inclusiveness in 1963) dilemma. But then something funny happens. Feynman concludes, tentatively, that (a) it's difficult for a scientist to have the certainty of faith of religious people; (b) the ethical aspects of religion lie outside science; (c) they also lie outside religion. Now RPF's humanity starts to get in the way. The science that he loves doing requires humility of intellect. He recognizes that some religious people have something in parallel: humility of spirit. So he would like to know how one gets this second good thing without buying into a dogmatic faith. He can't see how to do it, which is of course an exercise in humility. Then he turns to politics and gets into a fine mess, as freely admitted a week later. RPF hates specious authority. And there was even more of that in USSR than in USA. So he ended up convincing himself that USSR was even worse than USA.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 18, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This is Richard Feynman for the concerned layman. These three lectures, given in 1963, are Feynman's attempt to elucidate the proper role of science in the issues of the day. The first lecture discusses the value of skepticism and uncertainty in the field of science itself. The second lecture concerns what light the scientific method might shine on religious and political thought. The third, and most interesting, lecture is an extemporaneous talk on the 'unscientific age' of the 1960s. You may be surprised to discover how little things have changed since then. If you are a Feynman fan, or if you are concerned about the proper role of science and critical thinking in society, you will love this book. Well-written, non-technical, entertaining. A brilliant scientist displays a deep and abiding concern for social issues.
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33 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Wesley L. Janssen VINE VOICE on September 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
Beginning his first discourse, Feynman says that he will not offer anything "that could not easily have been said by the philosophers of the seventeenth century." He's right (Descartes and Pascal offered particularly interesting discussions of uncertainty). He says that he will "leave the more ridiculous of my statements for the next two lectures." He's right again, but it's interesting stuff. (Actually, he makes most of his "more ridiculous" statements in the second lecture).
The "meaning of it all"? As the eminent citizen-scientist states again and again, "I don't know." For Feynman this is cause for excitement. He finds ignorance to be the fuel of the scientist's imagination, and thus a wonderful thing. I recall Pascal's observation that "it is a wise ignorance which knows itself" and that in knowledge of one's ignorance it becomes apparent that "it is not certain that everything is uncertain." Feynman agrees but is clearly enamored with uncertainty; he finds precision in the sciences to be both highly desirable (he says "fun") and ultimately impossible (as did Pascal).
This small collection of transcribed lectures addresses the areas where the ideas of science overlap the ideas of philosophy, religion, and politics. As Feynman admits at the outset, he's out of his depth here. He's right. He describes agnosticism (uncertainty) and mislabels it "atheism" (both theism and atheism make truth claims -- that God does or does not exist -- and thus both claim a certainty); and he suggests that "Arab" is a religion. His differentiation between "ordinary" religion and "the elegant theology that belongs to it" is not unusual.
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