The Curious Character: Richard Feynman

"I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there."

There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician. —Hans Bethe

It seems as if, once again, the week is developing its own theme. It began with Stephen Hawking’s birthday on Sunday, followed by the release of Lawrence Krauss‘ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. And a couple of days ago, while looking something up for yesterday’s Shelley post, I happened upon a collection of four Richard Feynman videos. On Friday morning, the Richard Dawkins site featured a link to a series of videos on Open Culture titled “The Richard Feynman Trilogy: The Physicist Captured in Three Films.”  According to site,

It’s another case of the whole being greater better than the sum of the parts. Between 1981 and 1993, documentary producer Christopher Sykes shot three films and one TV series dedicated to the charismatic, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988). We have presented these documentaries here individually before (some several years ago), but never brought them together. So, prompted by a post on Metafilter, we’re doing just that today.

In keeping with the spirit of the celebration of these great scientific minds that we’ve been looking at this week, I want to share this collection of videos with you. When we listen to them, be it Hawking, Krauss, or Feynman (or any of the others for that matter), we can’t help but be reminded to always stay curious and to never stop thinking. We should watch them and remember to have and live rich intellectual lives.

The first film is “The Pleasure of Finding things Out,” and I’ve included it here. In it, Feynman talks about his excitement about science and scientific discovery. When speaking about the film,  Harry Kroto (winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) stated that,

“the 1981 Feynman [production] is the best science program I have ever seen. This is not just my opinion – it is also the opinion of many of the best scientists that I know who have seen the program. It should be mandatory viewing for all students whether they be science or arts students.”

The other two films (and one television show) can be found here, and they include “Fun to Imagine: Jiggling Atoms,” “The Last Journey of a Genius,” and lastly  “No Ordinary Genius.” I spent a large part of last night watching them, and I recommend you watch, too, as you find the time.

There are also a series of short videos titled the “Feynman Series” by the creators of the “Sagan Series.”  In these Feynman discusses Beauty, Curiosity, and Honors. These are short excerpts of his longer videos, and are also well worth a look.

Moreover, many of his writings and lectures have been compiled and published by his associates or students, such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and Classic Feynman. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a collection of his Caltech lectures, is surely one of the most noteworthy. He’s truly a joy to read.

Stay curious and enjoy!

A Universe from Nothing

In an interview with ABC in 2010, Diane Sawyer asked Stephen Hawking the following question, “If the universe gave you a gift tomorrow, an answer, what’s the answer you most want?” In response, Hawking, who recently celebrated his 70th birthday, stated,

I want to know why the universe exists. Why there is something rather than nothing.

In seeming response to this question, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss’s new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing, is being released today.

"We are all, literally, star children, and our bodies made of stardust."

I first read Krauss what seems like a lifetime ago when he published his book, Physics of Star Trek, and have, since then, continued to read his many works, my favorite being Quintessence (on the question of dark matter).  He recently published a book about Richard Feynman titled Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, which although I’ve not yet read, is on my list. And now, as stated above, his new book was just released, inspired by an incredibly popular video of a talk he gave titled “A Universe from Nothing.”

Like Dawkins, Sagan, Hawking, and others, Krauss has become a strong voice for the skeptics and rationalists among us, and in this talk for the Richard Dawkins Foundation he does not disappoint. I think he’s quite successful in conveying the idea that a godless universe need not be a “scary” place. According to Krauss,

It motivates us to draw meaning from our own actions. . . and to make the most of our brief existence in the sun.

Here is the video that inspired the writing of this book.


Happy 70th Birthday Stephen Hawking!

"It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious."

From Reuters:

 The world’s best known living scientist, Stephen Hawking, was too ill to attend his 70th birthday celebrations Sunday but in a recorded speech urged people to “look up at the stars” and be curious about the universe.

Hawking, the author of the international bestseller “A Brief History of Time,” was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 1963 and told he had barely two years to live. He has since been hailed as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein.

In the speech played out at a symposium in his honor at Cambridge University, he said his excitement and enthusiasm for his subject drove him on, and urged others to seek out the same inspiration.

“Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious,” Hawking said in the speech he had been due to give in person.

Earlier today while visiting my father, the conversation turned to the telescope that “Santa” had brought for my daughter and me. As the conversation went on, my father reminded me that he used to take me to the planetarium on his visitation days, when I was still quite young. I think within a span of a just two or three years we must have gone at least once every three weeks or so. It was certainly there where my obsession with space and science began. That was in the 70s. In the 80’s I discovered Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos, and began looking through the larger telescope at our local science museum. It was as that passion began to mature that I first came across Stephen Hawking.

His book, A Brief History of Time was given to me late in high school, and reading it had me absolutely determined to study physics. I did, and although I never quite got around to completing that major (I finally settled in the history department), it has shaped the way that I have learned to look at the world.

So thank you, Dr. Hawking, and a very happy birthday to you. Your work continues to inspire me to live filled with that sense of curiosity and wonder that I have so often written about, and your life serves as a reminder to face the challenges that I am handed with the strength that you have always shown.

Here’s the first part of the PBS series Steven Hawking’s Universe.

Keep looking up at the stars, and enjoy!

Where did all the nothing go?

Last night as I was fighting a particularly bad bout of insomnia, I came across this comic strip from folks over at sci-ence.  Keeping with the week’s theme, it reminds us that even when it seems that nothing is happening and boredom starts to creep in, that in this fantastic universe of ours, “nothing” never happens.

We used to be able to say things like ‘the vast nothingness of space” and have an idea of what that meant. But we know there is, in fact, lots of ‘things’ in between the regular ‘stuff’ in space. Dark matter, dark energy, virtual particles, the fabric of spacetime itself. These are things we cannot get rid of without stepping outside the known boundaries of our universe. The more we discover the more nothing recedes into abstraction and I really like when familiar concepts we take for granted are overturned upon scrutiny.

Nadir, the author of the comic strip, writes, and I heartily agree, that

I’m encouraged* whenever I see young kids interested in the mechanics of reality and want to tell them not to ever stop questioning those who give them answers.. . . I heard Neil Tyson give an interview where he mentioned how he had decided early on never to stop his children from exploring no matter how dirty they got or what they broke in the house. That curiosity for reality becomes so ephemeral during teen years that anything to cement it early on sounds to me like a good thing.

Let’s keep fostering in us, our kids, and each other, that sense of magic and wonder at all that this amazing planet has to offer.  Reminding ourselves and each other of the importance of living with open eyes, minds, and hearts is quite possibly one of the best gifts that we can give.

Why Atoms are Empty

I came across this video the other night on Metousiosis, and I can just say how giddy I get watching this stuff? In the video, physicist Brian Cox, along with physicist Jim Al-Khalili and comedian Simon Pegg, give us an informative, and very funny, demonstration regarding standing waves and nature of atoms. This clip was taken from BBC Two’s “A Night With The Stars.”

And just as an aside… we really do need better television on this side of the pond.