Throughout my years in university, Richard Feynman was a huge inspiration to me. Not only was he a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, but unlike many other scientists in the mid-20th century, he was something like a celebrity, kind of like Neil deGrasse Tyson today.
At the height of his career, he made important contributions to the field of quantum electrodynamics, where at the time, there were major holes in that theory that theoretical physicists were attempting to work around. Years earlier during World War II, he was heavily involved in the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project. As a young physicist, he made critical contributions that ultimately led to the success of that project.
However, in the years following his involvement with that project, where he saw the use of atomic bombs to end World War II, he grew into a depression. He struggled with the thought that he was so heavily involved in the creation of a tool that was ultimately used as a weapon responsible for the destruction of two entire cities in Japan.
It was during this time that he questioned himself: what is the value of science, and can science be inherently evil? Years later, he would give a lecture at the University of Washington, where he would share his thoughts on what he believed were the three values of science.
The first value of science is the obvious one: science enables us to do and make things that we could not have before. Much of what science enables is generally positive. For example, advances in medicine were made through scientific achievements. Advances in technology - which have so heavily shaped our modern world - were all fundamentally made as a result of scientific achievements.
However, for all of these positive benefits of science, it’s hard to ignore the fact that these same scientific achievements have led to the development of deadly weapons — guns, toxic chemicals, and of course, atomic bombs.
To this, Richard Feynman tells the story of how he once visited a buddhist temple where he had a conversation with a monk. The monk told him that every person is given the key to Heaven, but this same key also opens the gates of Hell. This is true for science: scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad, but it does not carry instructions on how to use it.
The second value of science is the intellectual enjoyment and inspiration that comes from learning, reading, thinking, or working with science. Although this isn’t directly valuable to society, the kind of inspiration brought about by science is significant.
In the early 1960’s when John F. Kennedy gave his famous speech to the United States, where he spoke of dreams of going to the Moon, he had inspired an entire generation of scientists and engineers to work even harder over the next few years to realize that dream.
Taking pleasure in finding things out is something that is uniquely human. In ancient times when our ancestors first began having more free time, one of the first things that they did was look up at the skies and wonder why things were the way that they are. The kind of curiosity that science brings about inspires us to achieve great things, and in doing so, progress society forward.
Finally, the third value of science is the inherent nature of how science deals with the unknown. By definition, science is about dealing with our ignorance of the universe, and struggling with our doubts and our uncertainties. This experience is a crucial one for all of us to have.
Scientists know that it is okay to be unsure or to not know the answer to something, and to always question everything. The ability to doubt, to question things that were in the past assumed to be true, and to question authority when needed, is a freedom that we all have, that we often take for granted.
The moment that you believe that you know everything, is the moment that you stop learning and improving. Science forces us to acknowledge that we do not know everything.
One of my favourite quotes from Richard Feynman is the following:
The first principle is that we should not fool ourselves, and we are the easiest to fool.
The ultimate value of science is that science protects us from fooling ourselves.