richard feynman

The Fantastic Mr. Feynman and the Value of Pictures

So I’m back. Its been over a week now since my first post. I was hesitating to add anything while canvassing the members of the Boyd Orr ‘strategic board’ for their views on the blog, and based on their responses have had time to think more usefully about what this blog is going to be about (more in another post).

The night before last I was watching The Fantastic Mr. Feynman on BBC Two, which followed the life story of the famous Richard Feynman, who among other things transformed the field of quantum electrodynamics (for which he got a Nobel Prize). He was also one of the best communicators of science ever; his ‘Feynman lectures’ represent a gold standard for introductory physics courses, one which I wish my lecturers paid more attention to. Those old enough to remember the ‘Challenger Disaster’ might remember that he is also famous for providing the key to understanding why the space shuttle had crashed. The programme was somewhat on the ‘hagiographic’ side, but even given that, well worth a watch. One of the many inspirational quotes I picked up, and very relevant to us as any kind of scientist:

“First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.” Quote taken from ‘The Fantastic Mr. Feynman’, airing on BBC Two on May 12th, 2013′ based on a previously aired television programme).

To my mind, this is what distinguishes physics (and by extension, the other “hard” sciences) from mathematics, at least in its purest form. It could be argued that mathematics does not, or at the very least, certainly does not have to, bear the same relationship to data as the sciences do. Or at least, the relationship may be more akin to the relationship between poetry and reality – it refers to it, and informs to it, but is under no constraints to conform to it. As Feynman so much more eloquently says, science, on the other hand, is nothing without reference to the data.

The programme also got me thinking a bit, about the value of pictorial representations in research. One of Feynman’s key contributions were the representation of subatomic particle interactions using simple pictures called (oddly enough) ‘Feynman diagrams’ – by integrating in simple sketches movement in both space and time, Feynman was able to take some very complex mathematical ideas and give them a simple, intuitive representation. I’d like to be able to say that, when presented these as a graduate student, I immediately saw their value, but alas I was initially quite resistant to the idea; I’d worked hard understanding all those equations! However, I did realise (eventually) what a beautiful way those diagrams were about how to think about the problem.

And that brings me back to the Boyd Orr Centre. First, Feynman’s point that the data are the key, and our models (both quantitative and conceptual) exist in reference to those data, is very much central to the Centre; we’ve a lot of very talented quantitative scientists and a consistent theme in their science is that a slightly ‘rough around the edges’ approach that says something useful about the data we are trying to understand, is more relevant to us than a more elegant, less ‘useful’ theory. Second, that understanding and communication are paramount – to paraphrase another Feynman quote, if we cannot explain our ideas in a well written undergraduate lecture, then we haven’t really understood it. It is this approach that helps our work be relevant not just to the science, but to the informed and intelligent practitioner of population health. It is these two aspects – relevance and communication – that lie at the heart of the Boyd Orr Centre, and coincidentally make it an inspiring place to do science.