“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” Richard Feynman
How do we learn and what inspires us to even try? It’s a question that underpins pedagogues as much as philosophers and advertisers, all with their wares to share, physical and intellectual. It’s via the unrequited mission to discover answers to life’s big questions that this question has directed the work of life’s great scientists.
One individual who could easily be described as the greatest scientist of all time is Richard Feynman, who was born on this day (11 May) 97 years ago.
During his lifetime, right up until his death in 1988, he acquired and left a wealth of stories about quantum mechanics, beauty, values, culture and more besides, stories that have lived on and transmuted into different formats fit for the modern age, helping to keep the vital legacy of his lifetime’s work alive, and inspiring countless people to stay curious.
Of the many poignant reflections and ideas that he pronounced was the sheer “pleasure of finding things out”, of questioning everything, curiosity for curiosity’s sake.
Indisputably the most charismatic and generous of polymaths, Feynman was never afraid to challenge prevailing opinion. He trained as a theoretical physicist and went on to be described as one of the greatest physicists of all time by the journal Physics World in 1999. But his insatiable appetite for knowledge and the depth of his inquiry led him to cross the disciplinary divides in a way that demonstrated the absolute need to do so in order to seek answers and fuel healthy debate.
Feynman famously balked at the idea of authority and relished the opportunity to challenge anyone or anything that claimed to possess the absolute truth, especially where he had reason to believe there was reason for doubt. He didn’t always have the right answers, not straight away at least, but the point was to inquire, and in doing so, to know that one could never know everything.
“Admitting that we do not know and maintaining perpetually the attitude that we do not know the direction necessarily to go permits a possibility of alteration, of thinking, of new contributions and new discoveries for the problem of developing a new way to do what we want ultimately, even when we do not know what we want.” The Uncertainty of Values lecture, April 1963.
The philosophy of ignorance
Science is about uncertainty, about never having all the answers but always trying to find some anyhow so that we might continue along a path unmasking untruths and getting closer to new discoveries. Each successive discovery reveals clues to another. It’s the grand game of the universe, which should rightly keep us forever enthralled because it’s a privilege to be part of it.
Feynman was a proud advocate of “the value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance and that progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought”. He knew that in admitting our ignorance, we remained inquisitive and ultimately in our unchangeable place as at the mercy of the matter that determines our fate:
“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
Happy Birthday Mr Feynman.