The meaning of it all : thoughts of a citizen scientist

by Richard Phillips Feynman

Paper Book, 1998




Reading, Mass. : Helix Books/Addison-Wesley, c1998.


"In April 1963, Richard P. Feynman gave a series of remarkable lectures at the University of Washington in Seattle. These three consecutive talks were classic Feynman - full of wit and wisdom - but their subject matter was wholly unexpected: Feynman spoke not as a physicist but as a concerned fellow citizen, revealing his uncommon insights into the religious, political, and social issues of the day." "Now, at last, these lectures have been published under the collective title The Meaning of It All. Here is Feynman on mind reading and the laws of probability and statistics; on Christian Science and the dubious effect of prayer on healing; and on human interpersonal relationships. Here is the citizen-scientist on the dramatic effect simple engineering projects could have on the plague of poverty; the vital role creativity plays in science; the conflict between science and religion; the efficacy of doubt and uncertainty in arriving at scientific truths; and why honest politicians can never be successful."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member hcubic
In 1963, Richard Feynmann gave three lectures at the University of Washington. This short book (only 133 pages) is a transcript of those talks. The lectures were not really physics, but were a very informal (virtually extemporaneous) view of what the results of modern physics means to everyman. Feynman displayed his characteristic wit and charm, along with the logic of a scientist to both amuse and edify the audience. His original expectation was that it would take all three lectures to make his essential points; it turned out that he (claimed to) have covered everything he wanted to in just the first two! So he just "rambled on" for another hour, with brilliant off-the-cuff observations that might have been a little less organized than the first parts of the series, but were not a bit less entertaining. The book does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of this remarkable spokesman for physics and science.… (more)
LibraryThing member miketroll
Splendid Feynman lectures on the philosophy of science, especially on the gulf between the scientific view of the world and common understanding of the way things work.

As always, the great man has the gift of explaining science in clear, simple terms. However, this book is a straight transcript of three lectures given orally without a script, so they lack the elegance of some of Feynman's other writings. All the same, a very stimulating read.… (more)
LibraryThing member figre
The writings of Richard Feynman (or, in some instances, collections of lectures if you want to be picky) never seem to go the way you expect, even when you are expecting the unexpected. This book contains the contents of a three-night series of lectures from the early sixties. At the beginning of the lectures he states his purpose as addressing “the impact of science on man’s ideas in other fields.” Things start out rather slowly. The first lecture focuses on the “nature of science and…the existence of doubt and uncertainty.” What follows is of some slight interest, but nothing profoundly “Feynmanian”. Really just a re-emphasis of the scientific method. The second section (second night’s lecture) is titled “The Uncertainty of Values” and goes on to discuss ethics and attempts to apply scientific methods (unsuccessfully) to such approaches. While not what one would normally find a scientist talking about (although expected of Feynman who, as usual, does it well), this is still not particularly earth-shattering or more thought provoking. At this point, I felt the book was a nice-to-have for the completist, but little more.

Ah, then the third section/night of lectures. Innocently titled “This Unscientific Age” one might expect the scientist’s usual rant against all things unscientific (astrology, religion, UFOs). Yes, those are approached, but not in the normal way. And science itself does not go unscathed. This is the Feynman that readers look for. The hint that things will be different (i.e. better) comes in the second paragraph when he states “I have completely run out of organized ideas.” I am hard-pressed to believe this is literally true, but what follows is Feynman throwing out ideas in his haphazardly organized method that leads to profound insights. At its core, this section reveals volumes about the way we think about things, about the way logic is missing from some of our thinking, and how logic is our excuse for wrong-headed thinking. For me, this was a springboard to rethinking a number of projects I am currently involved with, and it will be a section I reread a number of times in the future. The slow start is the only thing keeping this from being a better book. And, if you are new to Feynman, you are better off starting with “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”, “’What Do You Care What Other People Think?’”, or “’Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’”. (Sidebar – isn’t it interesting that the titles of two of these are quotes.) However, if you are even a casual fan, you will want to include this in your reading.
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LibraryThing member John
This is a series of three lectures delivered by Feyman in 1963, on The Uncertainty of Science, The Uncertainty of Values, and This Unscientific Age. They are interesting, and even entertaining, but far too discursive. They seem to be straight-forward transcriptions of what Feyman said, and would have benefited greatly from a rigorous editing. A different thing altogether, of course, but not as enjoyable as Feyman's autobiographical piece, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feyman (97:42).
Nevertheless, some interesting ideas such as: the critical importance of doubt as a source of searching, experimentation, and observation, and the fact that the freedom to doubt was born of a long and violent struggle; the impossibility of deciding moral questions by scientific techniques because the two are independent of each other; the great value of uncertainty and the importance of recognizing that it is not a weakness, but a strength; and finally the dangers of the unscientific age through things such as extrapolation of "facts" from random events, the calculations from/confusion of possibilities versus probabilities, the dangers of underestimating the intelligence of the people, and the misuse/abuse of statistical surveys and probabilities to convey certainties about the world that simply do not exist.
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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Feynman, Richard P.. The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist. Perseus Books, Reading, MA, 1998. A slender volume containing three of Feynman's speeches to the University of Washington. The book was hard to read, since it was a transcript of a speech (there is no better example of the difference between written and spoken English than this book!). Ultimately, this book boils down to one point: uncertainty. Feynman stresses the role of uncertainty in science and applies the scientific viewpoint to religion and other social matters. Overall, I'm not terribly impressed with the material in here. Perhaps that's because Feynman's viewpoint is so similar to mine that there was little that was thought-provoking.… (more)
LibraryThing member PickledOnion42
When originally delivered in 1963 the three lectures constituting The Meaning of It All may well have been considered quite fascinating, but I was left feeling rather disappointed: after all I've heard of Feynman, I found them surprisingly shallow as far as the exploration of ideas is concerned and, at the risk of incurring the wrath of his many admirers, also somewhat rambling in presentation (which is in no way helped by poor editing of the text, if indeed the transcript has been edited at all). Maybe I am being too critical; as a record of Feynman's noble rationalism and evident enthusiasm for the scientific method this book certainly has value, and despite my disappointment with this book I nonetheless feel compelled to read something written in Feynman's own hand. I only feel that had these lectures been given by a speaker of lesser renown, they would not have been deemed worthy of publication in their current unedited state. This is more a review of the publisher than of the speaker of course. Still: cue wrath!… (more)
LibraryThing member trinityofone
A trio of lectures Feynman gave in 1963 on the theme of "A Scientist Looks at Society." He discusses politics, religion, and the role of science. Feynman's thoughts aren't always perfectly organized, but much of what he says—especially about how people aren't trained to think scientifically, and how that's a detriment to a society that's pretty much conditioned to perceive itself as incapable of understanding science and logical thought—is still remarkably relevant today. This seemed to me almost like a book of psalms for irreligious people; I found it very calming.… (more)
LibraryThing member pussreboots
Although this book is probably the more socially significant of the two, I prefer the light heartedness of Surely You're Joking. This book is a series of collected lectures, so the Feynman that is presented here is the public Feynman, not private, enthusiast, who comes through so brilliantly in the almost stream of consciousness style of writing in Surely You're Joking.… (more)
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Many appreciate Richard P. Feynman’s contributions to twentieth-century physics, but few realize how engaged he was with the world around him—how deeply and thoughtfully he considered the religious, political, and social issues of his day. Now, a wonderful book—based on a previously unpublished, three-part public lecture he gave at the University of Washington in 1963—shows us this other side of Feynman, as he expounds on the inherent conflict between science and religion, people’s distrust of politicians, and our universal fascination with flying saucers, faith healing, and mental telepathy. Here we see Feynman in top form: nearly bursting into a Navajo war chant, then pressing for an overhaul of the English language (if you want to know why Johnny can’t read, just look at the spelling of “friend”); and, finally, ruminating on the death of his first wife from tuberculosis. This is quintessential Feynman—reflective, amusing, and ever enlightening.… (more)
LibraryThing member br77rino
This is the unedited transcript of 3 lectures given in Washington in 1963, at the height of the Cold War, and in part he lets the Soviets have it, with both barrels.

But the main theme is that uncertainty is good. Uncertainty is the only thing that allows for questioning, and without any questioning, as was the case in medieval Europe, and the then contemporary Soviet Union, science stagnates. Freedom of thought is essential to good science (topic of the first lecture, "The Uncertainty of Science"), as well as good societies (second lecture, "The Uncertainty of Values").… (more)
LibraryThing member Clif
I respect Mr Feynman's intelligence and skill as a lecturer. His reputation makes me feel bad about giving this book only two stars. But this book isn't his best work. The three lectures in this book were given in 1963. It's interesting to speculate how his speech would be different if given today. In 1963 the lectures may have seemed more cutting edge. I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the relationship between religion and science. Well, he did a fine job describing the conflict between religion and science. Then he asked the question, "How can religion and science coexist without being a threat to each other?" His answer was, "I don't know." I suppose that shows he's smart enough to not wade into theology. But I was disappointed. One interesting thing he said is that there are some scientists who believe in God, but there aren't very many who have an image of God that matches that of their parents. Of course that's true many non-scientists too.… (more)



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