Thursday, October 12, 2017

Feynman: Science "Proves" Nothing, Discovers Everything

(This blog entry is part two of a half-dozen reflections that steal teaching ideas from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, atomic bomb developer, colorful personality, and pretty darn good teacher.)

Some think the strength of science is that "it" speaks in authoritative absolutes. Or that "it" PROVES things. It is not uncommon to hear science conjured in almost anthropomorphic, if not completely deified tones:"Science has proven that...!" As if science has a sentient agency.

Feynman looks at science in a remarkably different way, but a way which, if given proper reflection, does not diminish the power of science - but highlights its strengths. He makes a few distinctions in his view that may help us "laymen" have a greater appreciation for science and scientists.

  • First, he acknowledges that SCIENCE doesn't really DO anything - but rather, science is a description of the actions of SCIENTISTS.
  • Second, he points out that one of the main jobs of scientists is GUESSING. 
  • Third, he finds epistemological authority to rest in the RESULTS, not the scientist.
  • Fourth, he admits that the scientist doesn't PROVE things - and indeed, doesn't set out to prove anything. Rather, the scientist seeks to DISPROVE his own hypothesis. (Which is a primary strength of the scientific method!)
Note these comments in Feynman's lecture below:

"Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it."

This humble approach is far from the booming voice of authoritarian edicts often associated with scientific statements. But it is more productive. It invites knowledge and opens minds rather than shutting down conversations. It is also more realistic; it acknowledges our remaining ignorance, but frames it as a frontier for discovery. It sets us on a path of exploring the wondrous unknown. The "know-it-all" attitude has a chilling effect on gaining knowledge, but the "Feynman attitude" is a useful approach in all disciplines.
"We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes 'the world' is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules." (Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics)

*Recommended companion readings: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn; Against Method, Paul Feyerabend;  The Order of Things, Michel Foucault.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Real Geniuses Keep It (as) Simple (as possible)

(This blog entry is part one of a half-dozen reflections that steal teaching ideas from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, atomic bomb developer, colorful personality, and pretty darn good teacher.)

Prof. Feynman during Special Lecture on Motion of Planets
( - public domain)
It would be easy for an accomplished professor to overwhelm students (particularly undergraduates) with a barrage of brilliant, baffling bombast. But good (in both the skilled AND ethical senses) teachers are interested less in inflating their own esteem, and more in helping move students along in their academic journeys. This idea was refreshed in my mind during my summer reading of Richard Feynman's undergraduate lectures on Physics.
Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it." (Intro to Richard Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher.)
Make no mistake about it: Feynman could never be accused of wielding Occam's Razor to the point of reductio ad absurdum. He understood that complex intellectual issues couldn't be reduced to a simple summary, but that there should be a process that facilitates the learner to approach these issues by steps:
"Not satisfied to learn physics in four years, you want to learn it in four minutes? We cannot do it in this way…. one needs a considerable amount of preparatory training even to learn what the words mean. No, it is not possible to do it that way. We can only do it piece by piece." (Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.)
One collection of his lectures on physics is titled "Six Easy Pieces," which, in some sense seems like a cruel joke, (He thinks this is EASY?) - but on the other hand, it makes sense. To someone devoted to learning Physics, these steps are the easiest way to approach the most complex topics in subjects like Quantum Mechanics.

As teachers, we should not assume we are successful if we are so "challenging" that students leave class feeling lost. Rather we must provide some scaffolding steps to take students up levels so they can engage the more complex issues of our field. But the steps must require some climbing - and must lead up to the objectives of the field of study. And, yes, we can tell them these are the "Easy Steps." And, even if they don't buy it as they climb the steps, when they reach the top, they will look back and see that this precept-upon-precept plan was the best way.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Rhetoric of Speed: The megabytes-per-second IS the Message

Every golfer has heard the saying, "Direction is more important than distance." And, golfers will come to believe the saying after losing a dozen balls that were hit far, but not accurately.

I imagine drivers who have been lost after following incorrect directions could adopt a similar motto, "Direction is more important than speed." In fact, the faster you go in the wrong direction, the "loster" you become. (I just invented that word, "loster.")

So - we are faced with another situation that may be a fecund field for mantras, mottos, and axioms: the speed of communication and information in the 21st century. Consider this quirky commercial for a French communications company that provides high speed fiber connections:

It seems that the brave new world of high-speed communications has birthed a new maxim:
"Speed is more important than... anything." 
We can see this in the use of internet in families like that of Papa Cool in the commercial. They just want to be able to see stuff, play stuff, hear stuff - without delay. They want it right now - no lag time. It seems that speed trumps all other concerns. We also see this principle instantiating itself in "news" - which was formally transmitted via newspapers, and afforded by that medium time to research, vet sources, confirm claims, etc. Even the structure of television news called for critical thinking and verification before the broadcast aired. But the new world of social media like twitter, etc. has re-shaped the practices of communications to meet the demands of an instant, 140-character, hyper-connected, brave new reality. Some would say that in news today:
"It is now better to be first, than to be accurate."

Our 21st-century challenge is to negotiate this new collection of media and critically interrogate the new rhetorics that are shaping our communication. A dozen years ago, Richard Lanham wrote:
"If economics is about the allocation of resources, then what is the most precious resource in our new information economy? Certainly not information, for we are drowning in it. No, what we are short of is the attention to make sense of that information." (Economics of Attention)
And another thing: That Papa Cool (by securing high-speed access) provides for his family, and makes them happy, is obvious. But there is another dynamic: speed makes Papa Cool... cool. He can now "fit in" with the peer groups of any of his family members. He uses his new access to learn and imitate the values, languages, and cultural practices of each group. See Papa Cool earning his coolness:

But what does Papa Cool want for Papa Cool? We have no idea of his own personal desires - other than to be cool, accepted by the various groups of consumers of speed. Papa becomes them by using their technologies, and his own identity fades into that of a member of the group(s). The individual disappears. Papa Cool is reshaped into the image of the desire of his creation.

For more thinking on this issue, read Greg Ulmer's "Flash Reason," which begins with this tought:
Paul Virilio stated the challenge to our information society: every technology includes its own disaster. The technology in question is that of our communications infrastructure, the digital media that function at the speed of light. The disaster Virilio has in mind is not only technical, but cultural and social as well (technics).  The speed of our digital world has created a dimensional pollution, compressing everything into “now.” This condition threatens to render impossible any democratic  public  sphere  since  there  is  no  time  for  deliberative  reason,  the persuasion and argument, needed to achieve the consent of the governed. (Read Ulmer's "Flash Reason" here.)
As an educator, I have the pleasure/task of introducing students to the tools and sites of current real world of communications, which are increasingly digital, connected, social and high-speed. I don't have the luxury to pretend that today's world of communications is the same as it was in the 1960's. My students already know that it is not the same. But my students and I are challenged with negotiating the sometimes seductive/sometimes dictatorial demands of the speed of new media with the need for critical thinking, research, verification, contemplation, reflection, and elegant composition.

And, as new media is continually shifting, I understand this will be a perpetually changing negotiation.Until time travel is invented, that is - then I'll be back at the city desk, using the communication literacies of old media, and hoping for a big scoop!