paul le

The Three Values of Science

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The following is a transcript of a speech that I did for a Toastmasters club meeting a few months ago.

The objective of this speech was to research any topic that I chose, and then present a structured speech on this topic. After the speech, I would receive feedback and advice for improvement from the audience and my speech evaluator. I would then present the speech again at a later date, applying the feedback and advice that I had received.

Around two months ago, I was the quote master for a Toastmasters meeting, where I told of a quote by Richard Feynman. I failed to note beforehand who Richard Feynman was, and why he was important.

Good evening fellow Toastmasters, and welcomed quests. Allow me to enlighten you all on who Richard Feynman was, and share with you all three pieces of wisdom that he had — his three values of the sciences.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning American theoretical physicist. Unlike many other theoretical physicists at the time, he was something like a celebrity, kind of like Neil deGrasse Tyson today, or Stephen Hawking.

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 though, he was heavily involved in the development of the atomic bomb in the Manhattan project, during World War II. As a young physicist, he made critical contributions that ultimately led to the success of that project.

In the years following his involvement with that project though, where he saw the use of atomic bombs to end World War II, he grew into a depression, grappling 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 all kinds of things and makes things that we could not have before.

Advances in medicine were made through scientific achievements. Advances in technology, that have so heavily shaped our modern world, were all fundamentally made as a result of scientific achievements.

That being said, 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 says that scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad, but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Once, when Richard Feynman was visiting a buddhist temple, he had a conversation with a monk who told him, that to every person is given the key to Heaven, but this same key also opens the gates of Hell. And so it is with science.

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 extra hard over the next few years to realize that dream.

To add to that, life isn’t all about work, and in ancient times when our ancestors first began having more free time, the first things that they did was look up at the skies and wonder why things are the way that they are. This is something that is distinctly human.

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 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. This is something that we all take for granted, and is in fact a freedom that we all have. That freedom is the ability to doubt, to question things that were in the past assumed to be true, and to question authority when needed.

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.

To wrap up Richard Feynman’s three values of science, I would like to say again my quote from a few meetings ago.

“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. Thank you all.

Also published on Medium