Thursday, December 5, 2013

Project #tweetprop: Feynman and uncertainty

The fifth proposition of my dissertation is the following:

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. (Richard Feynman)

or in Dutch:

Ik kan leven met twijfel, en onzekerheid, en niet weten. Ik denk dat het veel interessanter is te leven met het niet weten dan met antwoorden die misschien verkeerd zijn (Richard Feynman)

This proposition is part of those propositions that are not directly related to the contents of my dissertation, as you might have guessed.

I remember that I was a young child of about 10 years old, and my mother used to read me books before tucking me in for the night. One of the books that she read to me was "Sofie's World" by Jostein Gaarder, a novel about the history of philosophy. Nothing struck me as much as Socrates' "I know that I know nothing".

By the same token, I recall once getting a question at the end of a presentation within our research group. One of my colleagues asked me: "Do you really understand now how shear works in concrete?" I told him that there are two different things here: I do not claim to understand fully how shear in concrete really works - there might be another 100 years of research to fine-tune our findings and keep looking for the ultimate theory on shear. On the other hand, I'm pretty convinced that, by now, I have a good understanding of the topic. At the same time, I remain in awe for the big riddle of shear, which, frankly, still amazes me, while I don't fully understand it.

Along those lines lies what I consider a healthy outlook on the value of our scientific work. We can never know it all. We learn, we grasp some concepts, find a breakthrough, and find a number more questions. All the while, we keep our curiosity to look for more answers. That is the joy and beauty of our work.

So, when I stumbled upon this quote by Richard Feynman, I knew I would borrow it for my propositions. Not only does it fully resonate with how I approach the big questions in life (within my research, and outside of that), but it is also a Feynman quote. And Feynman is the bomb.

I blogged about Feynman earlier, and about his way of breaking down problems into their core elements. One of my favorite books ever is Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character). In this book, Feynman shows us in a very playful way how much science can be. He manages to lift up topics that are as loaded as the development of the atomic bomb into the quest of a young child trying to solve a number of riddles. If anybody can prove us that science is fun, then it is Richard Feynman.

Finally, this quote also resonates with my liking for the zen concept of the beginner's mind. When we keep an attitude of not knowing, of not boasting with confidence on a topic, but carefully exploring the possible answers, without wanting to find a rigid solution - that is when deep work is done, And that is when we approach science both with the respect it deserves as well as with a playful attitude of toying with ideas.

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