Monday, December 23, 2019

Untethered Science

I thought to read something for light reading, not expecting to get anything that would fit into the blog.  I made it almost all the way through the book, only to be caught – finally – in the Epilogue.

First a comment on the author and book. Richard Feynman was, of course, a Nobel Prize winning physicist.  He worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Cal Tech, and was a member of the commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger accident.  The second half of this book covers his time on this commission.

But it is the Epilogue, entitled “The Value of Science,” where I came to something worth writing about.  The Epilogue is a speech he gave in 1955 to the National Academy of Sciences.  In the preface to the Epilogue, he writes:

When I was younger, I thought science would make good things for everybody.  It was obviously useful; it was good.  During the war I worked on the atomic bomb.  The result of science was obviously a very serious matter: it represented the destruction of people.

It caused him to reflect: was there some evil in science?  What is the value of science when it can result in such destruction?  It was these questions that led to the lecture.

He begins by noting that from time to time scientists are encouraged to consider the many social problems plaguing society.  Great things would come of it if these men of science would spend time here instead of dealing with scientific questions.  Feynman offers:

I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy – and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naïve as anyone untrained in the subject.

And, he notes, since he will now talk about the value of science, be prepared for some naïve comments!  Some, I find, are not so naïve; it is these that I will examine. 

He offers that science can be a force for good – but this is not a function of science, it is a function of the moral choices made regarding what to do with the science.  He is reminded of a proverb he learned while visiting a Buddhist temple in Honolulu:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.

Sounds like a dangerous key.

Universal education would make all men Voltaires [heaven forbid!], but bad can be taught just as easily as good.  Communication between nations would promote understanding, but communication can be manipulated.  Applying science to medicine, man can control disease; yet many are working toward creating the next plague or poison.

Further, the imagination of nature is far greater than the imagination of man: which, after all, requires more imagination: that we are stuck on a ball swinging in space – half of us upside down, or that the world is carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in the sea?

Consciousness: what is this mind of ours?  What are these atoms with consciousness?

Last week’s potatoes!  They can now remember what was going on in my mind a year ago, a mind which has long been replaced.

A mystery that I believe will never be resolved by science as the term is understood in our time.

Science has greater and greater forces under its control, yet these do not carry instructions on how to use these forces.  What, then, is the meaning of life? Feynman asks.  His answer: we do not know.

But this is his problem.  Earlier in the book he spoke of his views on religion; these were not positive views.  Instead, he is looking to the age of reason for hope – we are early in this age.

Now, we have travelled sixty-five years since his lecture, and we are learning that the more we develop mankind in this age of reason the less meaning we are finding in life; the further we advance science, the more it is used to control and even destroy man. 


I found in this speech a pleasant humility.  It also ended kind of where I thought it would – with no answers to his questions because Feynman’s worldview is not capable of providing answers to such questions.

Imagine a place
Where it all began
They gathered from across the land
To work in the secrecy of the desert sand
All of the brightest boys
To play with the biggest toys —
More than they bargained for…

-          Manhattan Project, Rush

Man needs help with this bargain; he is incapable of handling it alone – without a past and without a future and without a worldview that says someone bigger is in charge, the key will open the door to hell far more often than to heaven.


  1. Your last four posts, particularly The Mark of the Beast, having given me much food for thought. Thank you again, Bionic, I'm both appreciative and grateful for your work. Peggy in Oregon.