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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Richard Feynman on the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something

A friend recently introduced me to this wonderful presentation by the great scientist Richard Feynman.  A winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, a member of the Manhattan Project, and outstanding communicator (and bongo player), Feynman is one of those people universally acknowledged to be a "genius".

The focus of this talk, which was part of an interview with the BBC, was science education. This became a recurring theme in Feynman's later life, as he felt that most schooling was at best dreadfully dull, and at worst pointless.  In this case, his concerned can be summarised quite neatly:

"I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."

It is possible to watch this short clip again and again, and take different lessons from it each time.

Feynman stresses the relative unimportance of names and words in learning, and that is an important lesson for those working in systems that tend to prioritise the superficial aspects of knowledge.

But his story also tells of a teacher (his father) who was willing to admit his own ignorance. And in doing so, inspired his son to go out and learn for himself. Learning was not a matter of remembering, but an adventure!

I think, implicit within this short extract of a conversation between the father and son was an introduction to the nature of science.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” 

Thanks to Ray Askew coach of the great Invicta Gym for introducing this clip to me.
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