Richard P. Feynman was one of the most brilliant physicists of the past century; his work with quantum mechanics, receiving the Nobel Price in Physics in 1965. Two years before that even, he gave a series of three lectures at The University of Washington in Seattle. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist contains those three lectures, and anyone with even a passing interest in Feynman, or science, should grab a copy of it.
The themes that run throughout the lectures range from politics to religion to the fundamental ideas of science, and although the Soviet Union is no longer a major topic of the news, all of the themes Feynman discussed are still relevant today. Through these lectures, even those completely unfamiliar with scientific ideas will come away feeling as though they have learned a great deal.
Feynman was a teacher at heart, and that heart was clearly a big one. Feynman was a brilliant physicist, but he was also a warm, funny man and a skilled raconteur. A young child could understand the examples he gives to clarify his lectures, and not once does Feynman take on an edge of prejudice towards those who would malign science as an atheistic lie. He treats all of his subjects with a gentle, familiar humor that will have readers smiling with understanding.
The three lectures are each given one section of the book. The first is entitled The Uncertainty of Science and deals largely with the acknowledgement that few things in scientific study are set in stone, as it were, and that such an acknowledgement is freeing, not frightening. Uncertainty, he insists throughout the lectures, allows for creativity and improvisation; it creates the necessity for invention. New ideas can only come from uncertainty, and living with that lack of “absolute” knowledge is in fact a comfortable and beautiful thing.
The second lecture, The Uncertainty of Values, ranges from a discussion of technological advances to politics to religion; it is the broadest of the three and yet Feynman details exquisitely what his thoughts are on all of the subjects. Although an atheist himself, he does not malign religious belief as scientists are often accused of doing (sometimes rightly); instead he acknowledges that religion could provide a useful moral code, which is something science cannot do. Science, he says, will answer the question of what will happen should A or B take place, but religion can answer whether or not it should.
Feynman’s final lecture is entitled This Unscientific Age -not, he says, because science was not progressing, but because it was not the focus of the age (as the ancient Greeks had an age of heroes or the religious Middle Ages). He describes what he means by a scientific age, and by the unscientific age in which he lived. In this lecture, he jokingly undermines all of his own authority, and again discusses religion, American politics and the ways in which science is useful.
The lectures capture Feynman’s speaking in a way few other books could; each pause, each mid-sentence change is detailed. It’s quite an experience to read a transcription of the way he talked; although he mentioned to his family that he disliked speaking because he never felt that he spoke “grammatically correct,” he was a captivating, amusing and elucidating speaker. Despite the fact that he was far more intelligent than most of the people around him, he could relate to anyone easily and kindly. 46 years after they were first given, Feynman’s lectures still have a strong emotional and intellectual impact, and will be sure to leave a lasting impression on anyone who reads them.