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The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

by Richard Feynman, 1999, 270 pages, $24.00, ISBN 0-7382-0108-1.  Published by Perseus Books.

How do great minds work and can we help our children to develop such minds? This book offers answers to both those questions.  It is a collection of the best short writings of Richard Feynman who possesses one of the greatest minds among 20th century scientists (he died in 1988).  Don't let the fact that his field was atomic physics scare you off.  When Feynman talked to or wrote for the general public, he showed the finest facet of his genius — he could simplify the most difficult areas of human thought and often with humorous insights.

In the very first chapter (and title of the book), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he relates incidents in his childhood showing how his father may have provided him with the key to unlocking the mysteries of the physical world.  He relates how, as a child, he was puzzled by a ball in his wagon that rolled to the back when he pulled the wagon, but rolled to the front when he stopped.

His father explained it's "called inertia but nobody knows why it's true".  His father suggested he look closely and when he did, he observed that it was the wagon that moved, not the ball.  Feynman noted "so that's the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions, no pressure, just lovely interesting discussions".

This fundamental idea of "the pleasure of finding things out, the kick in the discovery", he said was the real prize, not the Nobel Prize he received for his work on quantum electrodynamics.  (Incidently, Alfred Nobel was an engineer and left his fortune to honor engineers.  How his will was twisted to honor scientists only is another story.)

One of the hot fields of research today is nanotechnology — machinery that is so small it can work directly with individual atoms and molecules.  Feynman described it as possible, in fact, offered prizes for prototypes.  Again, he said it should be done "...for fun again and intellectual pleasure".  Similar to this, he once asked, "Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?".  In recent years the progress in the manufacturing of chips and our growing understanding of how DNA coding works makes his chapter, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" as exciting to read today as it must have been for those who heard this famous talk in 1959.  It has earned him the title of "Father of Nanotechnology."

He also expressed a serious side when he wrote, "...I believe that one of the greatest dangers to modern society is the possible resurgence and expansion of the ideas of thought control".  Also, many may recall his simple o-ring in a glass of ice water demonstration that showed why the o-ring failure that resulted in the space shuttle Challenger disaster was caused by low temperature.

Another area where his father guided his mental development was in mathematics.  When Feynman was still in his high chair, his father had him play games with some surplus bathroom tile.  By paying attention to patterns, he learned that "mathematics is looking for patterns".  His father introduced him to the wonders of the number pi.  Feynman describes this as " was more an emotion than a telling...".

Throughout the book, he emphasizes a fundamental lesson his father conveyed.  This is that we may learn words or definitions, but fail to grasp ideas.  Early on his father pointed out that if you learn the name of a bird in a dozen languages, you still know nothing about the bird.

He questioned the quality of many science text books.  Too many emphasize definitions and rely on "mystic formulas" such as "gravity makes it fall".  He observed we must "Learn from science that you must doubt the experts".  He also chides much of what is called philosophy as being sheer pomposity.  He suggested, "If they just laughed at themselves..."

Will reading this book make you a better inventor or entrepreneur?  Probably not.  But if you have children or grandchildren, you may gain a wonderful insight into what simple things you can say or do that may profoundly affect their mental development.

Buy it, enjoy reading it — then gift it to your local library.

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