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the Complete Review
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The Meaning of it All

Richard P. Feynman

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To purchase The Meaning of it All

Title: The Meaning of it All
Author: Richard P. Feynman
Genre: Science
Written: 1963
Length: 122 pages
Availability: The Meaning of it All - US
The Meaning of it All - UK
The Meaning of it All - Canada
Was soll das alles ? - Deutschland
  • Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
  • Three lectures given at the University of Washington in April, 1963.
  • First published 1998.

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Our Assessment:

B- : interesting thoughts, but lectures that don't translate ideally to the written page

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
American Scientist C 7-8/1998 David Goodstein
The Guardian . 25/3/2000 Nicholas Lezard
Nature . 19/8/1999 Stephen Battersby
The NY Times Book Rev. B 17/5/1998 Timothy Ferris
The Sunday Times . 12/4/1998 John Gribbin

  Review Consensus:

  All express great respect for Feynman, and mention how impressive he was as a public speaker. Acknowledging that there are "some nuggets of pure Feynman gold in this book" (Goodstein, who attended the lectures in person), they also find them not working quite as well on the page, especially the extemporized third lecture.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Feynman in person was electrifying, no matter what he spoke about. He could say more with body language alone than most people can extract from the Oxford English Dictionary. But on paper, dealing with matters far from his comfort zone, Feynman is quite another matter. The book is badly dated and atrociously edited. Many pages make the reader squirm with embarrassment." - David Goodstein, American Scientist

  • "Some of it reads pretty daffily, but that is what recorded speech looks like." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "(T)his latest offering finds Feynman on the high wire once again. Can he still deliver? Happily the answer is, for the most part, yes." - Timothy Ferris, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The three lectures in this volume, first delivered in 1963, discuss The Uncertainty of Science, The Uncertainty of Values, and This Unscientific Age. Addressed to a wider public, Feynman largely avoids technical detail and presents broader issues in science and society, most of which are as relevant today as they were when he spoke. Aspects are dated -- such as his criticism of Soviet science -- but still offer useful lessons.
       A perennial doubter and questioner (but never a cynic), Feynman insists that it is healthy and necessary to cast even science into question. He warns of the dangers of embracing absolutism, in science as in politics and religion, arguing strongly that "doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of great value." Always emphatically anti-authoritarian, Feynman makes a strong case for freedom in science (coupled with a willingness to question and wonder, necessary for science to be fruitful).
       He carefully broaches the subject of religion, considering the effect science and the study of science can have on such a belief system. Careful not to offend with regards to religion he then also offers a more resounding broadside against the totalitarian Soviet system.
       Throughout he sprinkles in anecdotes and examples, especially in the last and longest lecture, where he digresses extensively (admitting that he has "completely run out of organized ideas"). Arguing against everything from advertising to pseudo-science, and illustrating misunderstood probability Feynman offers some entertaining (though unfocussed) digressions. His discussion of advertising is surprisingly naive, as his rational mind can't understand why people fall for it (and why the F.T.C. doesn't properly do its job). Here as elsewhere he argues that people should approach it simply and scientifically: test claims, see what is right and what is wrong. A healthy attitude, convincingly expressed -- but which ignores some of the complexities of modern society.
       The lectures do not translate ideally into print. They are clearly the work of a man who taught by speaking, and while he could express himself clearly and succinctly in writing (the paper that introduced Feynman diagrams is a model of brevity and succinctness) these talks -- which he did not edit or prepare for publication -- are too disjointed for a written work. Free-spirited Feynman shines through these pages, but that does not suffice entirely.
       The subjects themselves have also been treated more extensively by other authors, but it is still always a pleasure to see Feynman's mind at work. These are not significant texts, but they are interesting documents. They make for a quick read, with some fun anecdotes and enough thoughts to chew on. Not a must read (or a great read), but worthwhile for those interested in issues of science and society.

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The Meaning of it All: Reviews: Richard P. Feynman: Other books by Richard P. Feynman under review Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American physicist Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) won the Nobel Prize in 1965. A graduate of MIT and Princeton, Feynman worked at Los Alamos and became one of the leading scientists of the second half of the twentieth century.

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