coverRichard Feynman, The Meaning of it All, (1963)

Science is

R. Feynman, The Meaning of it All, p. 5.

Text | Definitions of science | Themes his inquiry | Writing about uncertainty | related ideas

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Book's contents Contents

sparkleThe Uncertainty of Science, pp. 3 - 28. "talk about the nature of science and . . . the existence of doubt and uncertainty."

sparkleThe Uncertainty of Values, pp. 31 - 57. "discuss the impact of scientific views on political questions . . . and on religious questions."

sparkleThe Unscientific Age, pp. 61 - 121. "describe how society looks to me " . . . . And – "what future scientific discoveries may produce in terms of social problems."


"The ideas I wish to describe are old ideas."

(p. 3).

"Now thinking and thought involve concepts, what Richard Feynman calls "new ideas." As he suggests we need words "to express ideas."

(p. 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

inverse square law, "Proportional to the masses of two different and separated objects and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between these two defined objects."

diagram of inverse

Scientist Banesh Hoffmann reminds us that:

"Newton found that the gravitational force falls off as the inverse square of the distance."

p. 33.

"The magnetic force between poles, whether repulsive or attractive, is radial; that is it acts along the line joining the poles. And the force varies inversely as the square of the distance between the poles."

p. 63.

"Thus, the seemingly unmathematical lines of force have led to the conclusion, known long before, that the electric force varies inversely as the square of the distance. . . . Such was Faraday's discovery – a triumph for his seemingly unmathematical concept of lines of force as the very essence of electromagnetism."

p. 67.
Banesh Hoffmann, Relativity and its Roots, New York: W. H. Freeman, 1983.



Richard 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.

See Feynman explaining this failure to the commissioners

Richard Feynman describing what is the process of discovery.

"The key to science. . . ."


Outrageous world; is the meaning of this world 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 friend. (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)



"Or, there are the atoms. – mile upon mile of one ball after another ball in some repeating pattern in a crystal."atom

Underlying similarity in materials, origins, and functions is one current finding of scientists.

model of planets Atoms are everywhere and in everything but planets behave according to very different patterns than those we observe in atomic nuclei. neutron
Planetary model of atoms
atomic animation
Murray Gell-Mann quarks in a neutron

"And again, it has been discovered that all the world is made of the same atoms, that the stars are the same stuff as ourselves."




Earth and time are products of cosmic forces and neutron decay

Deep time -- "the long slow process of evolution"

p. 10

geological reconstruction 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 –porphyrin 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 lattice.

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.

p. 11

“So close is life to life. The universality of the deep chemistry of living things is indeed a fantastic and beautiful thing.”



“Life to life."

candleMichael 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."


Michael Faraday"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."

p. 14.

Difficulty visualizing the electrical relation to magnetism.


“We have lost the need to go to an authority to find out if an idea is true or not,”

p. 22.


"despite the uncertainty, science has to be predictive"

p. 25

  quantum diagram
A rendition to better convey visually the qualities of quantum uncertainly


nothing can be stated precisely

p. 25

“there is no harm in being uncertain.”

p. 26.

“All scientific knowledge is uncertain.”

“…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. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right.”

pp. 26-27.

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.

p. 27.

“So what I call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty….none is absolutely certain.”

p. 27.

How you get to know is what I want to know.”

p. 28.

“This freedom to doubt is an important matter in the sciences.”
“It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure.”

p. 28.

Three quarks for MM“…doubt 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.

p. 28.

Representation of three quarks (red, green and blue dots.) in a subatomic particle such as a proton or it ancestor neutron.

Text | Definitions of science | Themes his inquiry | Writing about uncertainty | related ideas