Yesterday, thanks to a conversation with my friend Eric McDowell, I found the quote below by my favorite physicist, Richard Feynman (1918-1988). (Doesn't everyone have a favorite physicist? Who is yours?) Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project and later (1965) won the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of quantum electrodynamics (don't ask me). In 1986, he served on the panel investigating the Challenger disaster; he was the one who discovered the link between cold temperatures and the failure of the 0-ring gaskets. During the hearing, he surreptitiously dropped an 0-ring held in a metal clamp into a glass of ice water -- while a witness was testifying that the cold had no impact on the ability of the O-rings to maintain their shape and thus integrity. As the witness concluded his testimony, Feynman pulled the O-ring out of the water and removed the metal clamp; the O-ring stayed as compressed and distorted as if the clamp were still in place. It was a simple experiment that demonstrated in dramatic and undeniable terms how fatally wrong NASA's judgment had been.
Feynman was a great character. Besides being a brilliant scientist, he was a painter, a great connoissuer of practical jokes, a passionate bongo player, a juggler, and a prolific author. Some of his books for the general public include Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!,What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. He was one of those people whose fascination with the universe was unending; despite his success in his field, despite his Nobel Prize, he said in a letter written near the end of his life, ""I was born not knowing, and have only had a little time to change that here and there." He also recognized that scientific knowledge and wisdom are two different things: "One does not, by knowing all the physical laws as we know them today, immediately obtain an understanding of anything much." To someone who almost blew up the chemistry lab and was recommended not to take physics by her high school guidance counselor, this is very appealing.
To one of his lectures, Feynman added this footnote:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part - perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the "why?" It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
A very good question, I think.