Finding Feynman

Posted by barb on Jan 28, 2005 in Science Musings |

Someone sent me the link to Alan Alda’s commencement speech at Caltech in 2002 [PDF]. He was asked to give the commencement speech because of his work on a play about Feynman, who was at Caltech when he won his Nobel prize in 1965 (one of my professors was attending Caltech when Feynman won the Nobel — apparently it was the only day he ever wore a tie).

I’m assuming you’re here at Caltech because you love science, and I’m assuming you’ve learned a great deal here about how to do science. I’m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us.

But not just because explaining to us what you do will get you more funding for what you do . . . although it surely will . . . but just because you love what you do.

And while you’re explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won’t make us love it.

Tell us frankly how you got there. If you got there by many twists and turns and blind alleys, don’t leave that out. We love a detective story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.

Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong turns are left out . . . and it doesn’t sound like a human thing they’ve done. It separates us from the process.

Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.

It seems that we have gotten so bogged down in our world of science that we’ve forgotten to share it with the rest of the world. One of the largest problems facing the science community today is that people don’t understand what the scientific process is. They don’t understand that scientists develop theories only after compiling data and observations. They don’t understand that theories are well-developed explanations of those data and observations, not merely “hunches” or “guesses” at what might explain those data. They don’t understand that just because a new observation challenges one part of a theory, the theory is not immediately defeated. Instead, the theory is examined closer and altered to explain not only the new data point, but to cover the entire collection of data and observations. Above all, they don’t understand that “dead-ends” are very much a part of science, and unanswered questions are not a mark that we don’t know what we’re doing, but a path leading us to work that needs to be done.

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