Saturday, May 12, 2018

The pleasure of finding things out

My news feed informs me that May 11th was Richard Feynman's birth centenary.

In this blog, I have referred to Feynman quite a few times.  The following is a re-post.

In the high school biology class, during one of the lab sessions, we transferred our blood drops to a glass slide, and viewed that with a microscope.  Even though the textbook and the biology teacher (was Gladstone his name?) had prepped me for it, I was blown away that the liquid blood was not some simple solution but there was all kinds of things happening there.  There is more than meets the eye, indeed! 

I was reminded of that experience when I read this essay on how discovering the microscopic world led humans into yet another frontier to which humans had never gone before.  Explorations of the micro-biology kind.

When it came to studying the human reproductive system, after reading the textbook with a sense of being a science explorer combined with all the teenage angst and desires, there were certainly plenty of moments when I wondered if the sperm really looked anything at all like the tadpoles in the pond.  I suppose it would have been one crazy biology lab if any classmate had attempted to check that out; thankfully, nobody did, and we believed the textbook instead.

It is that kind of curiosity to constantly peek behind the curtains which has led us to where we are now.
In previous ages, natural philosophers had attributed the causes of processes to invisible, occult forces and emanations — vague and insensible agencies. The new mechanistic philosophers of the 17th century argued that nature worked like a machine, filled with levers, hooks, mills, pins and other familiar devices too small to be seen. As Hooke put it: ‘Those effects of Bodies, which have been commonly attributed to Qualities, and those confess’d to be occult, are perform’d by the small Machines of Nature.’
He never quite found them — what the microscope revealed was more often unintelligible in these terms. But there was no shortage of other marvels.
Yes, marvels. A never ending stream of marvels. 

A typical complaint is that the more we systematically analyze the world around us, the less everything is charming.  That we reduce the wonders of nature to their material components, and then we decipher the components of those components. 

It simply isn't so. 

The fact that such inquiries enabled humans to walk around on the moon has not made the sight of a full moon any less poetic--it has only increased our desire to go check out the moon for ourselves, as much as we pricked our fingers and examined that blood under the microscope.  Critically analyzing a play or a musical performance makes us appreciate the nuances and adds to our enjoyment. 

But then, I am not saying anything new.  The phenomenal polymath physicist, Richard Feynman, articulated it for all of us while talking about the beauty of a flower:
I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Yes, the marvels we discover adds considerably to appreciating and enjoying this world.  If only people would invest a lot more time and energy to understanding science than we currently do. 

As Feynman noted in this context of a lack of interest in scientific knowledge:
we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more. And that the knowledge is just to put into correct framework the wonder that nature is.
Ah, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" ...

From the BBC Interview for Horizon 'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
Animated by Fraser Davidson (

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