Bongo

On the left is an ambigram for Feynman, as in Richard P. Feynman, the Nobel Prize winner in physics.  Physics, mind you, not the humanities, although sometimes you won’t even know it.  Feynman’s name came up during a chat in the comments section of the Unlearning post.  Just hours before, I’d spent 45 minutes at a music store, spellbound by the bongos, which Feynman learned to play later in life.  At the end of this post, you will see him have fun with the bongos, but before that I’d like to post some of his thoughts on the meaning of science.

Here is what the dude had to say in 1966 at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association: 

What is science? Of course you all must know, if you teach it. That’s common sense. What can I say? If you don’t know, every teacher’s edition of every textbook gives a complete discussion of the subject… 

…what science is, is not what the philosophers have said it is, and certainly not what the teacher editions say it is. What it is, is a problem… 

…A centipede was happy quite, until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
This raised his doubts to such a pitch
He fell distracted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run. 

All my life, I have been doing science and known what it was, but what I have come to tell you–which foot comes after which–I am unable to do, and furthermore, I am worried by the analogy in the poem that when I go home I will no longer be able to do any research. 

It is easy to say, “We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that.” You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers.

Yep.  I love this guy. ” Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (a book based on stories he told someone else) is a gem.  The particular story referenced by the title runs thus:

I go through the door, and there are some ladies, and some girls, too.  It’s all very formal and I’m thinking about where to sit down and should I sit next to this girl, or not, and how should I behave, when I hear a voice behind me.  “Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr. Feynman?”  It’s Mrs. Eisenhart, pouring tea.  “I’ll have both, thank you,” I say, looking for where I’m going to sit, when suddenly I hear “Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh-heh.  Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman.”  Joking? Joking?  What the hell did I just say?

For the continuation of this story, get the book.  And now, Feynman on bongos:


5 thoughts on “Bongo

  1. I read “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” and recommend it. Richard Feynman is an inspirational person.

  2. I love this book so much; he’s right about everything from the “joke” problem to his prophetic vision of “Cargo Cult Science.”

    But I also blame Feynman for leading me to believe that you could have a fun life and still be a successful academic. I really don’t think that’s true anymore, more’s the pity — that man knew a thing or two about eudaimonia.

    1. I know – he is a riot. I love how he exposes the myth about the humanities education – you know, the one that says that unless you take humanities courses as an undergrad, you never get to be a democratic person (oh, Martha, Martha!). I blog on the Silver and Black Pride, which is a Raiders blog, and the people there have the most amazing humanities-related discussions without being bred on the humanities. I think we all are hard-wired as humanists – what do you think?

      1. I agree that you don’t need courses to be a humanist, and most people are born humanists. But there does seem to be a class of person that prefers talking to machines, the black-and-white world of binary, etc. to real, messy, human life and art. I’ve had students like this, the ones who can’t deal with grey areas, and I’m finding more of them in web development…it’s very odd. Ah, football…I was raised in a non-football house, so I never got into it properly. But we did have some great Superbowl parties in grad school!

        1. Yes, I know what you mean – some students treat questions as problems to be exterminated… Check, check, check, no further thought required.

          Football – I am from Eastern Europe, where they worship football (the kind they here call soccer). It took me a while to start enjoying the American kind. I went to my first game last season, and it was a blast, even though we Raiders lost the game.

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