The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist

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Perseus Books, 1998 - Science - 133 pages
7 Reviews
Many appreciate Richard P. Feynman’s contributions to twentieth-century physics, but few realize how engaged he was with the world around him—how deeply and thoughtfully he considered the religious, political, and social issues of his day. Now, a wonderful book—based on a previously unpublished, three-part public lecture he gave at the University of Washington in 1963—shows us this other side of Feynman, as he expounds on the inherent conflict between science and religion, people’s distrust of politicians, and our universal fascination with flying saucers, faith healing, and mental telepathy. Here we see Feynman in top form: nearly bursting into a Navajo war chant, then pressing for an overhaul of the English language (if you want to know why Johnny can’t read, just look at the spelling of “friend”); and, finally, ruminating on the death of his first wife from tuberculosis. This is quintessential Feynman—reflective, amusing, and ever enlightening.

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The meaning of it all: thoughts of a citizen scientist

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"I have completely run out of organized ideas, but I have a large number of uncomfortable feelings about the world which I haven't been able to put into some obvious, logical, and sensible form ... Read full review

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On page 2 of this book I wrote "The names of things evoke angels according to their names." This was inspired by a number of episodes that I had joked about at the time (1970's). When I bought my 1953 MG TD with the deep blue Chinese lacquer paint job in 1972, the first name that popped into our heads was "Blue Baby". She was a beautiful blue baby! Over the ensuing months, the cooling system had numerous problems and needed a six-bladed fan to replace its dinky four-bladed fan to cope with California summer heat. Then it needed a new starter, a new this, a new that - the Blue Baby was beginning to resemble a weak newborn with a heart defect. Due to the aorta receiving blood from both sides of the heart, the newborn appears blue.
After fixing these problems, I decided that I wanted a robust car, so I renamed it TUFF•TD, and even got a Massachusetts personalized license plate with that name on it (evading the bluenose censors with a name that sounded like the vulgar epithet "tough titty"). I had few problems with it thereafter.
Later in the 70's I acquired a flashy silver colored VW Beetle with wide aluminum wheels and tires. We called it the Silver Bullet. Within a couple of months the Silver Bullet went up in a flash of fire and smoke when its motor caught fire and melted in the middle of a movie at the Do Drive-In. We never asked our teenaged daughter who was driving the car that night what might have been going on in the front seat, because with a name like "Do Drive-in" the answer was too obvious. We replaced the spent Silver Bullet with a newer blue Super Beetle which we carefully named the Durabeetle, and this car I drove for almost six years and 300,000 miles.
So what about the name The Meaning of It All? This name was given to this series of three lectures in order to sell them as a book. I found little in the lectures to recommend any title other than the more aptly named subtitle Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. My guess is Richard Feynman would have kept the subtitle and scuttled the title.
For Feynman's thoughts are that the meaning of it all can be found in his version of materialistic science, which even he admits cannot have all the answers. His thoughts are clear, concise, and interesting, but the title promises a hearty cup of soup and when we dip into the pot for our portion, we notice that the pot contains only hot water and a large stone. Science is to reality as a large stone in hot water is to minestrone.
In the folk fable of "Stone Soup" the stone was only the beginning of the soup - the soup was the promise. The citizens of the town, not being citizen-scientists, did not bring more stones, but instead brought salt, pepper, herbs, onions, carrots, parsley, cabbage, tomatoes, beef, and mutton to add to the savory broth which soon nourished the whole town.
There were a couple of morsels in Feyman's soup worth sharing with you. You can read them in my full review here: Bobby Matherne

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About the author (1998)

Richard P. Feynman was raised in Far Rockaway, New York, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton. He held professorships at both Cornell and the California Institute of Technology. In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He died in 1988.

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