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Feature - Feynman got it wrong! - Brian Clegg

Richard Feynman was one of the greatest scientists of all time, but even his genius had its weak points.

Richard Feynman's is a name that makes most physicists go weak at the knees. If there were ever one of those "hundred best" TV shows that seem so popular these days on scientists, Feynman would be placed well up the list. He had superb insight and way of cutting through complexity to underlying simplicity - very publicly illustrated in his contribution to the Challenger shuttle crash enquiry. But even Feynman had his weaknesses, most notably in his incomprehension of most aspects of culture. However this is about a case in the history of science where I think Feynman went astray.

James Gleick, in his excellent biography of Fenyman Genius points out that the philosophy of science taught at MIT irritated Feynman. "Roger Bacon, famous for introducing scientia experimentalis into philosophical thought, seemed to have done more talking than experimenting. His idea of experiment seemed closer to mere experience than to the measured tests a twentieth-century student performed in his laboratory classes... It also stuck in his mind that Gilbert [a sixteenth century experimenter] thought Bacon wrote science 'like a prime minister'."

I first ought to declare an interest. I wrote a book about Bacon a while ago - the First Scientist - which makes it pretty obvious I have a more positive attitude to Bacon. However it seems to clear to me that Feynman was falling foul of an error that he was dismissive of when it occurred in science. In making his comments about Bacon he was not "working from first principles" but picking up on the work of others. Feynman made a point of not reading other people's work, of going straight to the concept himself, but I'm prepared to bet from what Gleick says about him that he never read Bacon's books, or anything that put them into context - because the context is vitally important.

Let's start with that assertion from Gilbert. Leaving aside the fact that here was Feynman who wouldn't be influenced by a paper produced a year before being swayed by the writings of a near-unknown 400 years before, it's not even the criticism it seems. Bacon's biggest work, the Opus Majus ought to read like this, because it's not a science book, it's a political proposal! It was written to persuade the pope to allow Bacon to produce a compendium of scientific knowledge. This wasn't just a funding request - Bacon could lose his life if he didn't get special permission. So it's hardly surprising if it's a touch political. And frankly, even so it's a lot more readable (if you allow for the language of the period) than many proposals that have gone to funding bodies in the last couple of centuries.

I don't imagine you see anything so poetic as "... we take especial delight in vision, and light and colour have a special beauty beyond the other things that is brought to our senses." in many proposals.

It's also in this proposal that we read about his experimental science. You wouldn't expect a proposal to the pope to take the form of a series of reports of data from experiment (though Bacon does describe a number of optical experiments and reports data from a number of calculations) - he is arguing for the principle of experiment, not writing them up. And there's always this moan that he wasn't a very good idea of experiment because he relied too much on experience rather than modern repeatable processes. But surely the whole point is that Bacon was one of the first scientists - it would be very strange if he wasn't a rather poor scientist. To complain about the quality of his experimental work is pure ignorance. It's like complaining that prehistoric cave artists didn't make use of the full palette of colours.

The fact remains, Bacon argued for experiment over received wisdom. If only Feynman had done his homework he would have realised he had a lot more in common with Roger Bacon than he ever knew.

To find out more about Roger Bacon, see the First Scientist.

Brian Clegg is a popular science writer whose books include A Brief History of Infinity and Light Years.


Reader's Comment: Siegmund Probst, Germany

Apparently the quotation on Bacon's writing like a "prime minister" contains a double misunderstanding:

1) the author is not Gilbert but Harvey, and

2) Bacon is Francis Bacon, The Lord Chancellor, not Roger Bacon:

"It was no doubt considerations like these that prompted the English physician (and neo-Aristotelian) William Harvey, of circulation-of-the-blood fame, to quip that Bacon wrote of natural philosophy “like a Lord Chancellor” – indeed like a politician or legislator rather than a practitioner."

Editor's note: What isn't clear is who made the misunderstanding, Feynman's teacher at MIT, Feynman or Gleick.


Reader's Comment: David R. Brooks, Australia

You quote James Gleick (on Richard Feynman):

"It also stuck in his mind that Gilbert [a sixteenth century experimenter] thought Bacon wrote science 'like a prime minister'."

Siegmund Probst is later quoted pointing out errors in this quote.

A further error is the term "prime minister" itself: a blatant anachronism for the 16th (or 17th - Harvey's actual time) Century. The term did not come into use in British politics until the reign of George I, in the 18th Century.

Editor's note: Gilbert was 16th century, so the original misquote was (in this sense) consistent.


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Last update 05 June 2007