Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Entire Tapestry

I cannot put it any more plainly: you haven't lived till you have read Richard Feynman's "The Character of Physical Law".

There are ideas in the book -everything from Law of Gravitation to Symmetry in Physical Law to the relation of Mathematics to Physics in 170 pages - that are so beautifully explained, I wanted to stand up on my plane seat and read those words aloud to my co-passengers. (Then I saw how engrossed they were, watching Shrek or reading Harry Potter and decided against acting out my impulse.)

Take this one particularly soul-stirring passage from a chapter on Entropy and Disorder, titled "The Distinction Between Past And Future":

Which end is nearer to God; if I may use a religious metaphor. Beauty and hope, or the fundamental laws? I think that the right way, of course, is to say that what we have to look at is the whole structural interconnection of the thing; and that is all the sciences, and not just the sciences but all the efforts of intellectual kinds, are an endeavour to see the connections of the hierarchies, to connect beauty to history, to connect history to man's psychology, man's psychology to the working of the brain, the brain to the neural impulse, the neural impulse to the chemistry, and so forth, up and down, both ways. And today we cannot, and it is no use making believe that we can, draw carefully a line all the way from one end of this thing to the other......And I do not think either end is nearer to God. To stand at either end, and to walk off that end of the pier only, hoping that out in that direction is the complete understanding, is a mistake. And to stand with evil and beauty and hope, or to stand with the fundamental laws, hoping that way to get a deep understanding of the whole world, with that aspect alone, is a mistake.
Sadly, these brilliant lectures which were once available on Google and YouTube have now have been removed. If any of you know any other video sites where I can find them, please post links in the commentspace. For that that don't have access to a good public library or a bookstore, just google for the book title and you will find excerpts on Google Books.


Tabula Rasa said...

amen. feynman for god.

km said...

Or at least make him a Saint or something...St.Dick.

MockTurtle said...

Surely you're joking Mr KM.
Feynman has a really inspirational writing style, but his penchant for auto-fellatio could get in the way of his fast-track canonization.

wildflower seed said...

Nice, although (and I havent read this book) Feynman appears to only include those branches of knowledge which have to do with a subject looking "out" there into a world of objects and trying to make sense of them. Even behavioral psychology and cognitive brain sciences confine themselves in this manner. Surely, there is also the world of direct experience - direct apprehension of reality without the filter of concepts and language (i.e., it is not an "intellectual" endeavor) - and the knowledge about the universe to be gained from that kind of approach is no less part of the entire tapestry. I have read quite a bit of Feynman, and I dont think he appreciates this. On the other hand, Schrodinger certainly did. His "My View Of The World" is an amazing document of mystical explorations by a physicist, and a much more inclusive assessment of the nature of the universe.

km said...

MT: I am not unaware of the great man's "penchant" of blowing his..ahem...trumpet. But this book is a technical lecture, devoid of any affectation. It freaking rocks.

Hola, WFS! You are right, and I certainly need to read that Schrodinger book, but I believe RF knew his limitations.

At the end of this book, he very clearly expresses the difficulty in explaining the "why" of anything in this universe. Maybe that's where the mystics come in?