“It is imperative,” wrote Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, “to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.”
Richard Feynman recognized early in life the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers. He held curiosity and uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life.
Curiosity Can Lead to Odd Behavior
To say that Feynman (1919-1988) was a bit of an oddball is most certainly an understatement. Along with his brilliant achievements as a physicist (including the integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, as well as assisting in the development of the atomic bomb) he dabbled in dozens of creative and entertaining endeavors—a truly admirable hero to those of us driven by curiosity.
Feynman consistently tested the frontiers of his own competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite knowing. Knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; He taught himself how to write Chinese. He taught himself how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment. Lastly he taught himself how to live with cancer, and then how to surrender to it.
There is also the story that has become part of physics lore. A young Feynman grew bored in the remote New Mexico desert while working on the atomic bomb during World War II. He amused himself by learning to pick the combination locks in the supposedly secure filing cabinets containing America’s nuclear secrets. Frustrated administrators of the project changed to more secure locks and, as you might guess, Feynman picked those locks as well—all for the fun of it.
No One Really Knows–That What makes it Fun
Feynman is the poster child for the delight of toying with curiosity and uncertainty. In my research of Feynman on curiosity and uncertainty I came upon this statement by Carl Sagan. For me, his comments are essential for the truly curious person to remain open-minded, resting on the value of uncertainty and the humility to admit no one human has a lock on truth.
“If we ever reach the point where we think we thoroughly understand who we are and where we came from,” Carl Sagan wrote, “we will have failed.” Perhaps because, as Krista Tippett has observed, science and religion “ask different kinds of questions altogether, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.”
Sagan’s and Tippett’s comments are appropriate not only for religion and science, but also for all human knowledge as we know it. For me, except for the inexplicable power of Love, everything we know is subject to review, reconsideration, and quite possibly change.
Scary? What’s there to lose in the art of learning?
A Most Lonely Option
Photo courtesy of ClaudioVentrella at istockphoto
IMPORTANT NOTE: Parts of this post have been directly lifted from Maria Popova of Brainpickings.