10:00am

Thu May 17, 2012
Krulwich Wonders...

The Essence Of Science Explained In 63 Seconds

Originally published on Thu May 17, 2012 3:09 pm

Here it is, in a nutshell: The logic of science boiled down to one, essential idea. It comes from Richard Feynman, one of the great scientists of the 20th century, who wrote it on the blackboard during a class at Cornell in 1964.

Think about what he's saying. Science is our way of describing — as best we can — how the world works. The world, it is presumed, works perfectly well without us. Our thinking about it makes no important difference. It is out there, being the world. We are locked in, busy in our minds. And when our minds make a guess about what's happening out there, if we put our guess to the test, and we don't get the results we expect, as Feynman says, there can be only one conclusion: we're wrong.

The world knows. Our minds guess. In any contest between the two, The World Out There wins. It doesn't matter, Feynman tells the class, "how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is, if it disagrees with the experiment, it is wrong."

This view is based on an almost sacred belief that the ways of the world are unshakeable, ordered by laws that have no moods, no variance, that what's "Out There" has no mind. And that we, creatures of imagination, colored by our ability to tell stories, to predict, to empathize, to remember — that we are a separate domain, creatures different from the order around us. We live, full of mind, in a mindless place. The world, says the great poet Wislawa Szymborska, is "inhuman." It doesn't work on hope, or beauty or dreams. It just...is.

View with a Grain of Sand

We call it a grain of sand,
but it calls itself neither grain nor sand.
It does just fine without a name,
whether general, particular,
permanent, passing,
incorrect or apt.

Our glance, our touch mean nothing to it.
It doesn't feel itself seen and touched.
and that it fell on the windowsill
is only our experience, not its.
For it, it is no different from falling on anything else
with no assurance that it has finished falling
or that it is falling still.

The window has a wonderful view of a lake,
but the view doesn't view itself.
It exists in this world,
colorless, shapeless,
soundless, odorless, and painless.

The lake's floor exists floorlessly,
And its shore exists shorelssly.
Its water feels itself neither wet nor dry
and its waves to themselves are neither singular nor plural.
They splash deaf to their own noise
on pebbles neither large nor small.

And all this beneath a sky by nature skyless
in which the sun sets without setting at all
and hides without hiding behind an unminding cloud.
The wind ruffles it, its only reason being
that it blows

A second passes.
A second second.
A third.
But they're three seconds only for us.

Time has passed like a courier with urgent news
but that's just our simile.
The character is invented, his haste is make-believe
his news inhuman.


Thanks to Maria Popova and her blog "Brainpickings" for noticing the Feynman moment.

"View with a Grain of Sand" from View with a Grain of Sand, by Wisława Szymborska. Copyright © 1976 by Czytelnik, Warszawa. Text copyright © 1995 by Harcourt Brace & Company. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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