Wednesday, 25 July 2001

Richard P. Feynman: The Meaning of It All (1998)

Edition: Viking, 1998 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 884

These three lectures, about science, society, philosophy, religion and so on, were delivered in the early sixties but not published until after Feynman's death. They read as though they are basically transcriptions of more or less off the cuff speaking rather than as composed in written form for the book.

Basically the theme of the talks is how science relates to society's other concerns, with interesting digressions on subjects like why politicians' promises can't be trusted (because real life situations are often too complex for sound bit answers). The sections where Feynman defines science and where he talks about religion are particularly interesting, but there are thought provoking ideas throughout.

There are two - at least - disappointing aspects to the lectures. One is the occasional piece of naive American patriotism, endorsing the space race, for example, because it wouldn't do to let the Russians get too far ahead. This is more a product of the time and place than anything else, but it certainly dates what is said and reduces the impact of the more interesting bits.

The other problem is more serious, and pervades the whole book. The general tone of the lectures is over-simplified, and has a tendency when written down rather than spoken to come over as patronising. Feynman was a great communicator, and I suspect this problem is a result of the lectures being transcribed from the oral to written medium without editing. The Meaning of It All is interesting, but could have been fascinating if intended to be a book from the start.

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