Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #93: “The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist” by Richard P. Feynman


Dear kids,

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist is the transcript of a series of three lectures the late, great Richard Feynman gave in 1963 at the University of Washington on the impact of science on other fields. And these days, it’s a science-for-the-masses classic.

Here are some quotes I like:

  • “What is science? The word is usually used to mean one of three things or a mixture of them. I do not think we need to be precise – it is not always a good idea to be too precise. Science means, sometimes, a special method of finding things out. Sometimes it means the body of knowledge arising from the things found. It may also mean the new things you can do when you have found something out, or the actual doing of new things.”
  • “Is science of any value? I think the power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value.”
  • “The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found … Do you think it is dull? It isn’t.”
  • Once, the ancients believed that “…the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea.” What we now know about the earth and the universe is even more awe-inspiring, exciting, interesting.
  • On the unity of all scientific principles: Faraday’s ‘Chemical History of a Candle.’ “The Point of of Faraday’s lectures was that no matter that you look at, if you look closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.” A candle involves combustion, chemistry, physics, etc. etc. Faraday’s great scientific contribution: he showed that electricity and chemistry were “two aspects of the same thing – chemical changes with the results of electrical forces.” And yet, in an introduction to F’s book, it talks about the practical application of this knowledge, just as reporters like to do today. This greatly understates the general importance of the principle! “So to say merely that the principles are used in chrome plating is inexcusable.”
  • Good scientists know and are comfortable with uncertainty. “All scientific knowledge is uncertain … I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
  • The most credible person is the one that doesn’t have the answer. “… It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”
  • “I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion…” The young scientists learn the importance of doubt. He also learns of the vastness of the universe. “I do not believe that the scientist can have that same certainty of faith that very deeply religious people have.”
  • However, “…ethical values lie outside the scientific realm.” Not a lot of common ground; science doesn’t judge morality.
  • “The writers of the constitution knew the value of doesn’t.’ Wanted to be open to change.
  • Believes we are in an “un-age” because even though science is quickly advancing, our culture is unscientific. We prefer politicians with certain answers. We don’t like people changing their minds. “People are not honest… By honest I don’t mean that you only tell what’s true. But you make clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind. “We don’t do this.”
  • “Incidentally, people ask me, why go to the moon? Because it’s a great adventure in science.”
  • “We shouldn’t only think of the technological inventions when we consider the progress of man.”



Get the entire recommended reading list at Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday.


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