Sunday, December 24, 2006

"Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman"

Just finished this book. Read it very quickly even though it's a relatively long read - think it was just because it was very interesting.

Richard Feynman was considered one of the top minds of the last century. Reading this book, you'll get an idea why. Obviously, as an autobiography it does bring to the fore how great he thought he was. He never really goes into detail about his achievements, so it's tough to know details about what exactly it was that he achieved.

This book really blows stuff like Freakonomics out of the water in terms of thinking differently. I think the fundamental reason Feynman stood out was a combination of the persistence he asked the question 'Why?' and his ability to obtain answers.

'Why' is a fundamental word that should really be used more often. Ben Goldacre's wonderful 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian fulfils the modern day version of Feynman - asking awkward questions of what Feynman calls 'Cargo Cult Scientists.'

Asking the right questions of quacks and trash peddlers should smoke them out pretty quickly.

I often get frustrated at work when people give presentations that aren't necessarily backed up by facts. I too often put up charts without properly sourcing them. I think this is a problem that needs to be addressed in society in general.

Too often newspaper report only the findings of a study. It's amazing how often they won't actually tell you which journal the research is appearing in. They often won't even include who the authors are. I often moan about the number of headlines revolving around 'cancer risk' in newspaper stories. The old method of ignoring stories with quotation marks in the headlines needs to be followed more rigorously.

In summary, I remembered the Feynman lectures from my physics course and it's refreshing to find out that there was a genuinely interesting (if sometimes tipping towards the insane side of eccentric) person behind them. Well worth a read if you're looking for some popular science stuff.

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