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Ciciora’s Corner - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Mon, 02/28/2011 - 7:30pm
Walt S. Ciciora, Expert on Cable and Consumer Electronics Issues

Little is more satisfying than learning something new or gaining a new understanding.

When we go on long drives, usually to see children and grandchildren, we usually stop at the library and pick up a bag of books on tape (or, now more frequently, on CDs) to combat the monotony. A good book can work wonders keeping me alert.

Walt CicioraOn one such trip, we chose “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman.” That choice was made for several reasons. First, I like Feynman. He is clever and entertaining and makes difficult subjects understandable. I’ve read several of his other books. Second, short stories (or short works) are good for this purpose because if one isn’t quite good enough to capture attention, the next one likely will be better. And third, the title is almost the story of my life. I really enjoy “finding things out.” Little is more satisfying than learning something new or, even better, gaining a new understanding of something I thought I knew but didn’t appreciate how little I actually did.

I recommend this book not only because it is enjoyable, but also because it teaches a lot about learning in general. Those lessons are important for any kind of learning, including cable technology and operations. While you won’t find anything in Feynman’s book on cable technology, the lessons will provide some guidance on how to approach learning and reacting to others who might not agree with you on the job.

A relevant chapter in this regard is the seventh, which covers his “Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry.” It was a “minority report” because he didn’t agree with the other members of the panel. They essentially “whitewashed” NASA with their part of the report. Feynman insisted on issuing a minority position, which severely scolded NASA for letting other priorities get ahead of safety. There is an infamous quote from that horrible incident. The engineers were reluctant to approve the launch of the Challenger. They were concerned about safety. NASA management responded with “take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat.” Significant pressure was applied, and some caved and allowed the launch to proceed while a few defied management and refused to sign on. The problem with the launch was with rubber seals in the joints between sections of the solid fuel booster rockets. The cold temperature made the seals inflexible, and they could not move to seal the joints. Hot gas escaped and punctured the external tank with catastrophic results. During a press conference, Feynman took a glass of ice water, put some of the rubber seal into it and demonstrated the fatal flaw. This is a wonderful story of how to hold your ground when you know you are right, especially when safety is involved.

Other chapters include number eight – “What is Science?” – and number six – “The Value of Science.” The lessons of these chapters may surprise you. In essence, there is no such thing as “settled science.” Science is a collection of hypotheses that are always under challenge. The hypothesis must be “falsifiable.” That is, it must be stated in such a way that it can be proven wrong. I can’t ever be proven right; it can only stand as not having yet been proven wrong. One counter example can destroy the hypothesis, but the longer the hypothesis stands without being disproven, the more confidence we can have in it. But we can never be absolutely sure. This is an interesting lesson in humility. And yet the popular press likes to talk about “scientific certainty” and “settled science.” If you believe Feynman, and I do, there is no such thing!

Chapter 10’s title includes “Some Remarks on Science, Pseudoscience and Learning How Not to Fool Yourself.” Now that could be the most important lesson of the whole book. There is little more embarrassing than boldly taking a position when everyone else believes the opposite, and then finding out they’re right. You have fooled yourself. But I will leave that lesson as motivation for you to get the book from a library or bookstore.

The Internet has given us wonderful ways of finding things out. There are many free courses online. Some are from people who enjoy teaching. The Khan Academy has a large number of relatively short, topic-specific, informal lectures that you can take, in order, as a course, or you can take them one at a time to satisfy your curiosity on a particular subject.

Others are from universities by famous professors. These are essentially the courses students pay big bucks for. But you can have them for free and without the stress of exams, or sometimes even homework. However, you don’t get college credit for the time spent, just the learning based on how much time and effort you put into it. Even MIT and Yale have online free courses.

So there are many ways to experience “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.” Maybe start with Feynman’s book and then try an online lecture, or even a whole course.

E-Mail: wciciora@ieee.org

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