Journey begins entitled: The Milestones of Modern Science
| weekly focus | First Lecture / discussion | Books read | Feynman's
Meaning of it All
Divided into three
parts our investigation of the emergent natural order of the material
universe builds on the Babylonian, Greek and Indian conception of an orderly cosmos. It proceeds to a discovery of
life and all its complexity within that cosmos only to emerge in an inward
journey. Ultimately, like Dante and Beatrice, we stumble upon light in
the quirkiest of surroundings hiding at the material
heart of reality.
Thus, cosmos, life and light are core themes we use to display
the evidence for our thesis that the world is sufficiently knowable for
us to test our assumptions, discover our errors and reveal the elusive
beauty of existence. For such sublime beauty, permitted are we to glimpse
in the eternity of all things. We may peer only briefly before we change
from predator into prey eaten by the very dogs with which we once hunted
that now dismember and devour us.
Any milestone is a marker alerting the traveler of how far they have traversed
a highway. If science were a pathway from the ignorance of our past to
the errors of the present day, then the milestones would indicate the
seminal concepts propelling current research and discovery into mind,
matter, energy, time, space and life, itself.
This course asks several questions to reveal how extremely our worldviews
change over time. As human understanding of natural existence has changed
from the pre-Socratic ideas embedded in Aristotle to the present, serious
questions arise about the essence and origins of universal, physical conditions.
is defined as more than a certain kind of knowledge?
would like tonight to speak to you about the the
significant, distinguishing features, or characteristics among: thorough
thinking, analogous thought and refutable conceptualizations.
like tonight to speak to you about the significant, distinguishing features,
or characteristics among: thorough thinking, analogous thought, and refutable
conceptualizations. These phrases may all appear to be synonymous; one
for the other and all for one. Alas I hope to show that they are not
equal or the same in what they mean. What they do correspond to is a sort of pyramid of associations. Those associations run from
uncertain to less and less rigorous ways to describe what we see. What this means is that thorough thinking may not explain an
observation and only some concepts can be relied upon to predict what may occur under those same or similar circumstances.
We distinguish these phrases because certainty is so elusive. Or so I think, we look at these discoveries as a sort of pyramid
of knowledge, the apex of which is a rare, predictive, and testable
form of knowing. That is the form of knowledge that we will call science
and it will be divided into the physical and life sciences. The physical sciences are largely unvarying sciences
(once called natural philosophy) and the life sciences that all
possess a temporal variation in that time is a significant component
of varying outcomes in the life sciences. Once called natural history,
as the term implies, if you reverse time in the life sciences some very
strange and impossible situations arise, whereas time reversal in physical
science has a very different sort of outcome.
Because Feynman in the Meaning of It All suggests that science is not
strictly speaking or merely ordered thought, the three phrases
thorough thinking, analogous thought, and refutable conceptualizations
will be considered in reverse order. I do this because I want to interpret
the author and make my point that science is not a search for truth
or the mastery of authority. According to Feynman, and before him Jacob
Bronowski–a famous mathematician and interpreter of science and the
arts–science is a quest. Both men see it as an ongoing search for sensible and testable new ideas
because as Bronowski insists, science is a set of disciplines
existing always on the edge of error. (Ascent of Man)
as Feynman argues The more definite the statement, the more important
it is to test. He believes that because We have a way of
checking whether an idea is correct or not. By that Feynman says
We simply test it against observation, which is difficult
indeed, despite his use of the word simply. But it does
establish his factual statement that There is no authority who
decides what is a good idea. And it is here that we have the most
significant concept with respect to modernity and the history of thought.
We live at a time, despite the tide otherwise among a widespread number
of divergent groups, when We have lost the need to go to an authority
to find out if an idea is true or not, as Feynman articulates (p. 22)
in his initial lecture.
To be quite clear, we decide truth by testing a concept for accuracy
and determining to what extent it is in error; we do not test goodness
in the sciences based on the intensity of ones logic, the feel
of ones reason, or the hope of discovering supporting evidence.
No one tests by finding exceptions, errors and seeks to account for
the ever present uncertainties in our experimental evidence and mathematical
accounts or descriptive explanations of those real tests of anyones
By applying this strict definition of science as a means of determining
uncertainty and the degree of error in our reason, Feynman says we
can try it out; and find out if it is true or not. (p. 21) That
is not because an Einstein or a Faraday said so, but because the evidence
we use to test the concept verifies the hypothesis.
While at the level of thorough thinking, true may seem like the opposite
of error and thus using analogous thought you insist science is
the search for truth. You may even say, because Feynman, an authority
on light and nuclear forces, said that science is a means of testing
if it is not true
. (Ibid.) that our scientists discover
truths. Worse yet, you may by a judicious, but mistaken use
of analogy–tell me that the priests and priestesses of the pagan past
are analogous to the men and women scientists today who seek
the truth. Why quibble you say over how the search for error is
qualitatively different from the seeking out of truths?
This thinking analogical analysis
breaking things down into comparable concepts that make up a
bigger whole is after all what serious thinking is all about. Yet in
his last lecture, I believe this fallacy of conflating thorough thinking
with scientific search for errors and uncertainty is why Feynman talks
about witch doctors and makes the spurious analogy (see he uses analogous
thinking) between witch doctors and psychiatrists.
Might I suggest to
you that the search for error in any idea, concept or especially in any
belief system, is of quite significant difference from searching for
truth. In both the means of discovery and the things discovered the necessity for refutable conceptualizations is important to reveal errors in what we know of the world. That is in part why Feynman refers to gravity
and the inverse square law as an example of a testable or what
I will call a refutable rule. That is to say any concept is precisely accurate because
(ironically) you can try to disprove it and in doing so it withstands the test to discredit the idea with observable evidence.
Now thinking and thought involve concepts, or what Richard Feynman calls
"new ideas." As he suggests we need words "to express
ideas." (116) We need a lot more words than we have to convey accurately
the conditions we now understand as universal (everywhere) and predictive
(inverse square law).That it is possible to find a rule, like
the inverse square law of gravitation, is some sort of miracle. It is
not understood at all but it leads to the possibility of predictionthat
means it tells you what you would expect to happen in an experiment
you have not done. (page 23)
Feynman insists, No. Its nowhere near as good as a proposition that the planets
move about the sun under the influence of a central force which varies
exactly inversely as the square of the distance from the center.
(p.19) He clarifies his point by saying that the second theory is better
because it is so specific; it is so obviously unlikely to be the result
of chance. Furthermore, Feynman argues that the prediction is
so definite that the barest error in the movement can show that it is
Inverse square law,
I will return
to this significant distinction I am making between accurate, that is to say, less uncertain
bodies of knowledge and the search for truth. I do so because as
he reminds us science is more than just thorough thinking.
also be more than just testing the observable or testing a hypothesis
by collecting evidence to refute your assumptions. Nevertheless, why
is science not the same as knowledge of the truth?
because long ago William of Ockham suggested that we do not needlessly
complicate our explanation of events if we are rigorous thinkers? Yes,
but also no. It is because an experiment, any experiment, if well constructed
to test assumptions and carefully observed to rule out uncertainties
has more than a simple outcome.
I hope to convince you that there are not merely affirming or denying
results in any experimental test of a new idea. Experiments are done to test any authorities
assumptions. Yes, an experiment may verify a hunch, it may refute the
hypothesis we are testing, but what if it does neither?
Truth is not
the simple opposite of error, nor is it a state of being error-free, nor even limiting
the inherent degrees of error, because experiments can have a third, undecipherable
outcome. These unconvincing outcomes of experiments neither support,
nor refute the hypothesis, but they remain inconclusive.
the more famous of these experiments, conducted at Case Western Reserve
in Cleveland, Ohio by professors Michelson and Morley in the 1880s
is just such an experiment. Both men hoped to discover the existence
of Isaac Newtons hypothesized fluid called ether by
measuring the period of light waves moving in the same direction or
opposite the earth and those moving at right angles to the Earths
motion about the sun. Everywhere the men measured light traveled at
precisely the same speed. For twenty-five years people argued about
the characteristics of the ether. Was the ether expanding ? Was it contracting? So it was until Albert Einstein had a new
idea. That was the idea of relativity which replaced the Newtonian arguments for the existence of the undiscoverable ether.
My point here is that thorough thinking, analogous thought and
refutable conceptualizations are not the same thing because when experimental
evidence is reviewed it may support a new idea. The experiment
tests and refutes the assumption based on analogous thought or thorough
thinking, or the experimental test of an observation may remain inconclusive.
My argument tonight is among one of many reasons why Feynman sees that
uncertainty is a valuable asset when searching for errors (or truths).
In science, if it is careful, accurate and predictable scientific information,
the concept must pass the test. We must be able to make a thesis statement
that can be refuted; otherwise, the meaning for science is not limited
sufficiently on which to base any reliable observation. As you will
see observation alone is insufficient to determine whether Claudius
Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe, or Johannes Kepler is the more correct about the
cosmic structure of the solar system. But that is next weeks discussion.
Meaning of it All, (1963)
Feynman, The Meaning of it
All, p. 5.
Text | Definitions of science | Themes
his inquiry | Writing about uncertainty | related ideas
Now thinking and thought
involve concepts, what Richard Feynman calls "new
ideas." As he suggests we need words "to express ideas."
(116) We need a lot more words than we have to convey accurately the conditions we now understand as universal (everywhere)
and predictive (inverse square law).
(pp. 19-20. 23).
inverse square law,
to the masses of two different and separated objects and inversely proportional
to the square of the distance between these two defined objects."
Feynman, author of Quantum Electrodynamics, Feynman diagrams and several books for nonscientists about his life and his unfathomable
curiosity for material things.
Dr. Feynman, a native New
Yorker (Brooklyn), was a physicist at Cal Tech for all of his professional
life after his work on the Manhattan Project, and teaching at Cornell
University in Ithaca. He served on the Commission investigating the causes
of the Columbia space ship disaster in which all the astronauts on board
perished on take-off. Feynman publicly rebuked the technicians for not
understanding the basic impact of freezing or cold temperatures on the
materials that make o-ring seals. The failure of these "o-ring"
seals, a simple device brought down a complex machine causing the loss
of human life.
Outrageous world; is its meaning hidden or apparent?
Basic meaning arises from order:
Any organization from grammar and syntax to signals requires order to convey the intended meaning to others.
For example at one level the order determines what an assemblage of letters means:
Another level of meaning comes from deciphering one form into another such as the spoken words into written phrases.
frend is the phonetic spelling of spoken sound for friend. Friend is spelling the sound correctly as opposed to freind. (Find,
fiend, fend, fen, fin, phennig, phenol, fennel ... irregularity of language
and the regularity of reason.)
So Feynman asks rhetorically, "Have we got too many words, No,
No....Have we got too many words, No."
(page 116, The
Meaning of it All)
in materials, origins, and functions is one current finding of scientists.
and time are products of cosmic forces and neutron
time -- "the long slow process of evolution"
from fossils, rock layers, pollen and tree rings reveals, a series of
previous stages in existence where no humans, or even ancestral hominids,
lived on earth.
There is evidence
even for a "World without a living thing on it."
Life itself has
a commonality found
in precisely arranged molecules:
Chlorophyll is composed
of a six carbon loop, called a porphoryn ring that holds
magnesium in a suspended state within a carbon and nitrogen lattice. This
is a similar structure responsible for respiration that holds either
iron in hemoglobin, or copper in its place on a similar carbon-nitrogen
Chlorophyll is responsible
for photosynthesis in bacteria & plants. That is the process by which bacteria changed the atmosphere of the planet and now holds the world in a steady but perturbed disequilibrium.
Proteins in bacteria
& humans have the very same molecular structures that carry out
respiration, by which each life form thrives.
close is life to life. The universality of the deep chemistry of living
things is indeed a fantastic and beautiful thing.
Faraday's candle and Feynman's links:
"That no matter what you look at (observe & observation),
if you look at it closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe."
"And so he got, by looking at every feature of the candle, into combustion, chemistry, etc. But the introduction of the book, ... here is what Faraday said about his own discovery: 'The atoms of matter are in some ways endowed or associated with electrical powers, to which they owe their most striking qualities, amongst them, their mutual chemical affinity."
Difficulty visualizing the electrical relation to magnetism.
"despite the uncertainty,
science has to be predictive"
A rendition to better convey visually the qualities of quantum uncertainly
can be stated precisely
there is no
harm in being uncertain.
knowledge is uncertain.
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. You have to permit the possibility
that you do not have it exactly right.
He argues that,
the rate at which you create new things to test, is affected
by the uncertainty that is recognized to persist despite our growing
knowledge of material things.
So what I
call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees
.none is absolutely certain.
you get to know is what I want to know.
to doubt is an important matter in the sciences.
It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure.
is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed, as the possibility
of a new potential for human beings.
Doubt is clearly
a value in the sciences.
of three quarks (red, green and blue dots.) in a subatomic particle
such as a proton or it ancestor neutron.
A substantial theme
of Feynman's text
of science | means of his inquiry
| Writing about uncertainty | related