If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that
All things are made of atoms - little particles that that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.
In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
Richard Feynman was the ultimate physicist and the greatest science lecturer of all time. It's unbelievable physical insight into all matters, his original way of thinking and his unique character made him one of the most influential personalities ever. His influence is so strong that can be transmitted even through a single web page collecting some of his ideas, 15 years after his death.
Physics is like sex; sure, you can get some interesting results, but that's not why we do it.
The Universe in a Glass of Wine
A poet once said, "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If in our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!
In the early 60's Feynman (at the time faculty member at Caltech) was asked to teach Caltech's undergraduate 2 year introductory course in physics. He agreed to teach the course only once. The lectures he gave during these 2 years were audio recorded and the blackboards where photographed. A couple of years later, these lectures came out in written form as The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and are considered one of the most important achievements of the 20th century: the encapsulation of the entire field of physics, by its greatest living practitioner.
He taught physics like none had before him; in the normal physics course they usually went through all the historical developments until in the final weeks they reach the chapter on atoms and molecules, the very essence of our world. However in Feynman's very first lecture in the fall of 1961, over 200 students were gathered to listen to him announcing the words you can find at the beginning of this page. In his second lecture he summed up "Physics before 1920's" in less than half an hour and went on to quantum physics, the new stuff that students came excited to hear.
Here is an audio sample on his concluding remarks on the near symmetry in nature - one of Feynman's finest moments. symmetry.mp3:
And this is his explanation of the existence of our world:
why atoms do not fall apart! atoms.mp3:
Apart from these official lectures, for more than 20 years he taught unofficially a course called Physics X; once every week people gathered somewhere on campus under the sun of LA and they could ask Feynman any physics question they wanted. The students were meeting the previous days in order to come up with questions that could possibly frustrate him, although it is said that none ever managed to do that.
You see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens?
For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out on the ice and slipped and broke her hip. That satisfies people. But it wouldn't satisfy someone who came from another planet and knew nothing about things...
When you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you've allowed something to be true. Otherwise you're perpetually asking why... You go deeper and deeper in various directions.
Why did she slip on the ice? Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that-no problem. But you ask why the ice is slippery... And then you're involved with something, because there aren't many things slippery as ice... A solid that's so slippery?
Because it is in the case of ice that when you stand on it, they say, momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so that you've got an instantaneous water surface on which you're slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes. So the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it...
I'm not answering your question, but I'm telling you how difficult a why question is. You have to know what it is permitted to understand... and what it is you're not.
You'll notice in this example that the more I ask why, it gets interesting after a while. That's my idea, that the deeper a thing is, the more interesting...
The Challenger Destruction
On January 1986 the space shuttle Challenger carrying 7 people exploded in the air shortly after its launch. A committee was called in order to investigate the accident and Feynman was in it. Figuring out the causes of the accident became a matter of national importance (plus some government pressure), being the main topic discussed in TV and newspapers these days.
2 weeks after the accident a press conference was held. Feynman kept asking for a glass of ice water, which he got after numerous attempts. Then he interrupted the conference by putting a small piece of rubber material (same as on the shuttle) inside the glass of water, which immediately contracted due to the cold. When the cameras focused on him, he pulled the piece out and showed that it didn't regain its original shape explaining what he did:
I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it it doesn't stretch back. It stays the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least and more seconds than that, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees.
I believe that has some significance to our problem.
Not only did it have some significance to the problem, but it it was indeed the physical cause of the accident, and he managed to demonstrate it simply in front of everyone. The video with his demonstration played again and again the following days and Feynman also became known to a vast majority of non-technical people (he was already quite famous among scientists and science-related people).
More on Feynman
The best way to get to know him is seeing him in action, i.e. lecturing. In 1979 he gave 4 lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) appealing to general audience. He chose New Zealand to deliver these lectures because he didn't want to risk a possible failure by lecturing at his native Caltech. Fortunately you can find these memorable lectures online here, so that you can witness Feynman at his best.
Update July 2009:
Microsoft Research has put online videos of the extremely rare Messenger Lectures that Feynman gave at his prime in Cornell in 1964. Those lectures only existed as a book until now, "The Character of Physical Law". They are probably the best material of Feynman you can find around. Watch them here.
James Gleick's Genius is by far the best book about Feynman; Gleick writes as if he knows him since childhood, keeping a distinct balance between his life and his research. In that book you will also find an excellent account on geniuses, investigating the reasons why they seem to have vanished in modern years. You can find it on Amazon.
The Tuva trader sells every possible Feynman related material, including his QED lectures on DVD.
www.feynman.com is his official website; you will find lots of information about him written by people they knew him really well.
No need to say that if you are (even indirectly) involved or like Physics, you should purchase his Lectures right now. They are expensive, but they are worth every single buck.
Side note: After watching Feynman, reading Feynman and reading about Feynman I sometimes wish I was born a few years before; just to have the slightest chance of talking to him once.