UW News

October 5, 2011

Much more than physics: Remembering Common Book author Richard Feynman

Persi Diaconis will speak on The Search for Randomness at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, in 130 Kane. He is the first of three lecturers in conjunction with the Common Book.

When UW Physics Professor Vladimir Chaloupka was a young scholar, he was invited to give a lecture at California Institute of Technology. He was both thrilled and apprehensive, because he knew the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman — who taught there — was likely to be in the audience, and hed heard that Feynman was capable of utterly demolishing a speaker.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

When the fateful evening arrived, Feynman was indeed there, seated in the front row. “He was genuinely interested in the subject, his questions were friendly, and after the talk, after everyone else was gone, he spent nearly an hour with me at the blackboard, exploring the implications of the experiment,” Chaloupka wrote in his book, Art of Fugue.

So Chaloupka was a natural choice when the UWs Common Book Committee wanted someone to create a study guide for this years Common Book, The Meaning of it All. The book is based on three lectures that Feynman gave at the UW in 1963 as part of the Jessie and John Danz Lecture Series.

“I feel powerfully attracted by the complexity of his personality and of his life,” Chaloupka said of Feynman, who died in 1988.  “It is as if in him, in a single person, much of the human condition could be studied and eventually better understood.”

Though Feynman was a physicist, his lectures, as transcribed in the book, were not about physics. Subtitled “Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist,” the book takes on diverse matters, from the conflict between science and religion to the validity of faith healing and telepathy.

“This book was very exciting to us because not only does it have a whole set of important questions that it brings up, but it was delivered here on campus in 1963,” said Christopher Campbell, special assistant to the vice provost in Undergraduate Academic Affairs and co-chair (with Lisa Oberg) of the Common Book Committee.  “So it has a great connection to the history of the University in this 150th anniversary year and it has these wonderful themes to put in front of the students.”

The UW Common Book program has a simple purpose: Provide entering first year students with an initial shared experience built around the reading of a common text.

For Chaloupka, the major theme that runs through this book is the importance of doubt. About doubt, Feynman wrote:

“Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.”

Campbell said he thinks thats a pretty interesting theme to talk about with first-year students. “When youre coming out of high school, youre often told the purpose of education is to find answers,” he said. “What were saying here is, to get to answers, you first have to ask questions. So the first thing is to consider what questions to ask, how to ask them. What are the things we dont know and how do we reach out into these areas that might be new to us so we can discover things about the world and about ourselves?”

There is a lecture series connected with the Common Book this year, and the first speaker will deal directly with the idea of uncertainty.  Persi Diaconis will speak on The Search for Randomness at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 12, in 130 Kane.  Diaconis, a magician as well as a mathematician, will discuss the connections between his work and Feynmans physics. What are the physics of coin tossing? What does it mean to be random? How can we use randomness to understand the world around us and how do you make decisions in the face of uncertainty?

The series continues on Jan. 12 with author Amy Tan speaking on Creative Minds Do Not Think Alike and on April 17 when astronomer Chris Lintott speaks on What to Do with 500,000 Scientists. These are also collaborations with the Graduate Schools public lectures.

Campbell said Undergraduate Academic Affairs is working with Housing & Food Services to spark some activity around the Common Book in the residence halls. The idea is that after the lectures, the students could come back to the residence halls and continue the conversation with food. There will be a post-event discussion for UW students after the Diaconis lecture over coffee, tea and pastries. It will be in Poplar Hall and is open to all students, wherever they live. UAA is also actively recruiting student groups to put on their own related activities.

“We have what we call student ambassadors — undergraduates — and their job is to go out to student organizations and talk about the book and brainstorm with them about how their organization can connect with this book, then help them apply for money that we have available,” Campbell said. “Were interested in events, projects, performances, displays. There are a lot of things students can do.”

Last year, for example, students in the Cuisine Club were doing a sushi night and decided to incorporate haiku to go along with the poetry-themed Common Book that year. Campbell hopes that this years events will be similarly original.

Chaloupkas guide, meanwhile, is designed to open the world of Richard Feynman to anyone who is interested. “The emphasis of the Common Book has been on first-year students, but I think anyone can learn from this book,” he said.

Chaloupka believes, however, that people should read the book before looking at the study guide, because he doesnt want his own views to color what other people see. The guide, which is being prepared for the web by UAA Communications Director Kirsten Atik, includes an annotated listing of all Feynmans books, many of which are compilations of essays or talks, as well as books about him. There are several biographies of Feynman, including one in comic book form, and a (mostly) one-character play. Chaloupka also includes related readings, study questions and suggested physics experiments.  The study guide will be posted on the Common Book website by Oct. 21.

For Chaloupka its been a labor of love, because even though he disag
rees with Feynman about many things — both within and beyond physics —he pronounces himself “deeply appreciative” of the man. Its something to say, considering what Chaloupka learned sometime after his lecture at Cal Tech.

“I mentioned the story [of my lecture] to an older colleague,” he said. “And he told me that as far as he knew, Feynman was mercilessly critical only to people at or near his own level — to all others he was very kind, provided they were not conceited fools.”

So, Chaloupka said, Feynmans lessons for him were about both exuberance and humility.