Joseph Stiglitz: Creating a Learning Society


February 9, 2016

Joseph Stiglitz: Creating a Learning Society

 

Calculus on a blackboard

(pic) Financial market liberalisation may undermine countries? ability to learn another set of skills that are essential for development: how to allocate resources and manage risk. Photograph: Image Source / Alamy/Alamy

by Joseph E.  Stiglitz

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jun/09/why-learning-matters-innovation-joseph-stiglitz

Citizens in the world’s richest countries have come to think of their economies as being based on innovation. But innovation has been part of the developed world’s economy for more than two centuries. Indeed, for thousands of years, until the Industrial Revolution, incomes stagnated. Then per capita income soared, increasing year after year, interrupted only by the occasional effects of cyclical fluctuations.

The Nobel laureate economist Robert Solow noted some 60 years ago that rising incomes should largely be attributed not to capital accumulation, but to technological progress – to learning how to do things better. While some of the productivity increase reflects the impact of dramatic discoveries, much of it has been due to small, incremental changes. And, if that is the case, it makes sense to focus attention on how societies learn, and what can be done to promote learning – including learning how to learn.

A century ago, the economist and political scientist Joseph Schumpeter argued that the central virtue of a market economy was its capacity to innovate. He contended that economists’ traditional focus on competitive markets was misplaced; what mattered was competition for the market, not competition in the market. Competition for the market drove innovation. A succession of monopolists would lead, in this view, to higher standards of living in the long run.

Schumpeter’s conclusions have not gone unchallenged. Monopolists and dominant firms, like Microsoft, can actually suppress innovation. Unless checked by anti-trust authorities, they can engage in anti-competitive behavior that reinforces their monopoly power.

Moreover, markets may not be efficient in either the level or direction of investments in research and learning. Private incentives are not well aligned with social returns: firms can gain from innovations that increase their market power, enable them to circumvent regulations, or channel rents that would otherwise accrue to others.
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But one of Schumpeter’s fundamental insights has held up well: conventional policies focusing on short-run efficiency may not be desirable, once one takes a long-run innovation/learning perspective. This is especially true for developing countries and emerging markets.

Industrial policies – in which governments intervene in the allocation of resources among sectors or favour some technologies over others – can help “infant economies” learn. Learning may be more marked in some sectors (such as industrial manufacturing) than in others, and the benefits of that learning, including the institutional development required for success, may spill over to other economic activities.

Such policies, when adopted, have been frequent targets of criticism. Government, it is often said, should not be engaged in picking winners. The market is far better in making such judgments.

But the evidence on that is not as compelling as free-market advocates claim. America’s private sector was notoriously bad in allocating capital and managing risk in the years before the global financial crisis, while studies show that average returns to the economy from government research projects are actually higher than those from private-sector projects – especially because the government invests more heavily in important basic research. One only needs to think of the social benefits traceable to the research that led to the development of the internet or the discovery of DNA.

But, putting such successes aside, the point of industrial policy is not to pick winners at all. Rather, successful industrial policies identify sources of positive externalities – sectors where learning might generate benefits elsewhere in the economy.

Viewing economic policies through the lens of learning provides a different perspective on many issues. The great economist Kenneth Arrow emphasised the importance of learning by doing. The only way to learn what is required for industrial growth, for example, is to have industry. And that may require either ensuring that one’s exchange rate is competitive or that certain industries have privileged access to credit – as a number of East Asian countries did as part of their remarkably successful development strategies.

There is a compelling infant economy argument for industrial protection. Moreover, financial market liberalisation may undermine countries’ ability to learn another set of skills that are essential for development: how to allocate resources and manage risk.

Likewise, intellectual property, if not designed properly, can be a two-edged sword when viewed from a learning perspective. While it may enhance incentives to invest in research, it may also enhance incentives for secrecy – impeding the flow of knowledge that is essential to learning while encouraging firms to maximise what they draw from the pool of collective knowledge and to minimise what they contribute. In this scenario, the pace of innovation is actually reduced.

More broadly, many of the policies (especially those associated with the neoliberal “Washington Consensus”) foisted on developing countries with the noble objective of promoting the efficiency of resource allocation today actually impede learning, and thus lead to lower standards of living in the long run.

Virtually every government policy, intentionally or not, for better or for worse, has direct and indirect effects on learning. Developing countries where policymakers are cognisant of these effects are more likely to close the knowledge gap that separates them from the more developed countries. Developed countries, meanwhile, have an opportunity to narrow the gap between average and best practices, and to avoid the danger of secular stagnation.

• Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, is University Professor at Columbia University. His most recent book, co-authored with Bruce Greenwald, is Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.

Cultivate the Art of Serendipity


January 5, 2016

NY Times Sunday Review | Opinion

SundayReview | Opinion

Cultivate the Art of Serendipity

03kennedy-1451576711727-blog427In 2008, an inventor named Steve Hollinger lobbed a digital camera across his studio toward a pile of pillows. “I wasn’t trying to make an invention,” he said. “I was just playing.” As his camera flew, it recorded what most of us would call a bad photo. But when Mr. Hollinger peered at that blurry image, he saw new possibilities. Soon, he was building a throwable videocamera in the shape of a baseball, equipped with gyroscopes and sensors. The Squito (as he named it) could be rolled into a crawlspace or thrown across a river — providing a record of the world from all kinds of “nonhuman” perspectives. Today, Mr. Hollinger holds six patents related to throwable cameras.

A surprising number of the conveniences of modern life were invented when someone stumbled upon a discovery or capitalized on an accident: the microwave oven, safety glass, smoke detectors, artificial sweeteners, X-ray imaging. Many blockbuster drugs of the 20th century emerged because a lab worker picked up on the “wrong” information.

While researching breakthroughs like these, I began to wonder whether we can train ourselves to become more serendipitous. How do we cultivate the art of finding what we’re not seeking?

For decades, a University of Missouri information scientist named Sanda Erdelez has been asking that question. Growing up in Croatia, she developed a passion for losing herself in piles of books and yellowed manuscripts, hoping to be surprised. Dr. Erdelez told me that Croatian has no word to capture the thrill of the unexpected discovery, so she was delighted when — after moving to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship in the 1980s — she learned the English word “serendipity.”

Today we think of serendipity as something like dumb luck. But its original meaning was very different.

In 1754, a belle-lettrist named Horace Walpole retreated to a desk in his gaudy castle in Twickenham, in southwest London, and penned a letter. Walpole had been entranced by a Persian fairy tale about three princes from the Isle of Serendip who possess superpowers of observation. In his letter, Walpole suggested that this old tale contained a crucial idea about human genius: “As their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” And he proposed a new word — “serendipity” — to describe this princely talent for detective work. At its birth, serendipity meant a skill rather than a random stroke of good fortune.

Dr. Erdelez agrees with that definition. She sees serendipity as something people do. In the mid-1990s, she began a study of about 100 people to find out how they created their own serendipity, or failed to do so.

Her qualitative data — from surveys and interviews — showed that the subjects fell into three distinct groups. Some she called “non-encounterers”; they saw through a tight focus, a kind of chink hole, and they tended to stick to their to-do lists when searching for information rather than wandering off into the margins. Other people were “occasional encounterers,” who stumbled into moments of serendipity now and then. Most interesting were the “super-encounterers,” who reported that happy surprises popped up wherever they looked. The super-encounterers loved to spend an afternoon hunting through, say, a Victorian journal on cattle breeding, in part, because they counted on finding treasures in the oddest places. In fact, they were so addicted to prospecting that they would find information for friends and colleagues.

You become a super-encounterer, according to Dr. Erdelez, in part because you believe that you are one — it helps to assume that you possess special powers of perception, like an invisible set of antennas, that will lead you to clues.

A few months ago, I was having a drink in Cambridge, Mass., with a friend, a talented journalist who was piecing together a portrait of a secretive Wall Street wizard. “But I haven’t found the real story yet; I’m still gathering string,” my friend told me, invoking an old newsroom term to describe the first stage of reporting, when you’re looking for something that you can’t yet name. Later that night, as I walked home from the bar, I realized “gathering string” is just another way of talking about super-encountering. After all, “string” is the stuff that accumulates in a journalist’s pocket. It’s the note you jot down in your car after the interview, the knickknack you notice on someone’s shelf, or the anomaly that jumps out at you in Appendix B of an otherwise boring research study.

As I navigated the brick sidewalk, passing under the pinkish glow of a streetlight, I thought about how string was probably hiding all around me. A major story might lurk behind the Harvard zoology museum ahead or in the plane soaring above. String is everywhere for the taking, if you have the talent to take it.

In the 1960s, Gay Talese, then a young reporter, declared that “New York is a city of things unnoticed” and delegated himself to be the one who noticed. Thus, he transformed the Isle of Manhattan into the Isle of Serendip: He traced the perambulations of feral cats, cataloged shoeshine purveyors, tracked down statistics related to the bathrooms at Yankee Stadium and discovered a colony of ants at the top of the Empire State Building. He published his findings in a little book titled “New York: A Serendipiter’s Journey.”

The term “serendipiter” breathed new life into Walpole’s word, turning serendipity into a protagonist and a practitioner. After all, those ants at the top of the Empire State Building didn’t find themselves; Mr. Talese had to notice them, which was no easy matter. Similarly, Dr. Erdelez came up with the term super-encounterer to give us a way to talk about the people rather than just the discoveries. Without such words, we tend to become dazzled by the happy accident itself, to think of it as something that exists independent of an observer.

We can slip into a twisted logic in which we half-believe the penicillin picked Alexander Fleming to be its emissary, or that the moons of Jupiter wanted to be seen by Galileo. But discoveries are products of the human mind.

As people dredge the unknown, they are engaging in a highly creative act. What an inventor “finds” is always an expression of him- or herself. Martin Chalfie, who won a Nobel Prize for his work connected with green fluorescent protein — the stuff that makes jellyfish glow green — told me that he and several other Nobel Prize winners benefited from a chain of accidents and chance encounters on the way to their revelations. Some scientists even embrace a kind of “free jazz” method, he said, improvising as they go along: “I’ve heard of people getting good results after accidentally dropping their experimental preparations on the floor, picking them up, and working on them nonetheless,” he added.

So how many big ideas emerge from spills, crashes, failed experiments and blind stabs? One survey of patent holders (the PatVal study of European inventors, published in 2005) found that an incredible 50 percent of patents resulted from what could be described as a serendipitous process. Thousands of survey respondents reported that their idea evolved when they were working on an unrelated project — and often when they weren’t even trying to invent anything. This is why we need to know far more about the habits that transform a mistake into a breakthrough.

IN the late 1980s, Dr. John Eng, an endocrinologist, became curious about certain animal poisons that damaged the pancreas, so he ordered lizard venom through the mail and began to play around with it. As a result of this curious exercise, he discovered a new compound in the saliva of a Gila monster, and that in turn led to a treatment for diabetes. One of Dr. Eng’s associates (quoted in a 2005 newspaper article) remarked that he was capable of seeing “patterns that others don’t see.”

Is this pattern-finding ability similar to the artistic skill of a painter like Georgia O’Keeffe? Is it related to the string-gathering prowess of Gay Talese? We still know so little about creative observation that it’s impossible to answer such questions.

That’s why we need to develop a new, interdisciplinary field — call it serendipity studies — that can help us create a taxonomy of discoveries in the chemistry lab, the newsroom, the forest, the classroom, the particle accelerator and the hospital. By observing and documenting the many different “species” of super-encounterers, we might begin to understand their minds.

A number of pioneering scholars have already begun this work, but they seem to be doing so in their own silos and without much cross-talk. In a 2005 paper (“Serendipitous Insights Involving Nonhuman Primates”), two experts from the Washington National Primate Research Center in Seattle cataloged the chance encounters that yielded new insights from creatures like the pigtail macaque. Meanwhile, the authors of a paper titled “On the Exploitation of Serendipity in Drug Discovery” puzzled over the reasons the 1950s and ’60s saw a bonanza of breakthroughs in psychiatric medication, and why that run of serendipity ended. And in yet another field of study, a few information scientists are trying to understand the effects of being bombarded on social media sites with countless tantalizing pieces of “string.”

What could these researchers discover if they came together for one big conversation?

Of course, even if we do organize the study of serendipity, it will always be a whimsical undertaking, given that the phenomenon is difficult to define, amazingly variable and hard to capture in data. The clues will no doubt emerge where we least expect them, perhaps in the fungi clinging to the walls of parking garages or the mating habits of bird-watchers. The journey will be maddening, but the potential insights could be profound: One day we might be able to stumble upon new and better ways of getting lost.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on January 3, 2016, on page SR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cultivating the Art of Serendipity.

Opinion: Malaysia Must Not Create ‘Christianophobia’


December 27, 2015

Opinion: Malaysia Must Not Create ‘Christianophobia’

Many Malaysians are angry and deeply bothered by Universiti  Teknologi Mara (UiTM) in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Shah Alam organizing what was reported as an “anti-Christianization” conference, held on December. 12. It was the second such seminar held on the campus in 2015.

There is nothing new about the practice of such institutions in training students to fear themselves and non-Muslims and non-Malays especially. It is a natural program  to instill fear as part of a culture to defend the existence of race-based ideology. It is part of an apartheid strategy of Malaysian education that I have written about in many articles.

What is new is the question: how do we dismantle this system  and work  towards peaceful co-existence? I do not think the Christians and particularly Catholics in Malaysia appreciate being bullied endlessly. I do not think they want to be branded as “evil people trying to spread false and dangerous message threatening Islam.”  Muslims in the west are being bullied as well. But neither is right.

I do not think they need to be associated with the Christian Crusades that took starting more than 1,000 years ago, or being linked to the undeniable brutality of the Christian-imperialist armies that annexed cultures and massacred natives in Latin America, Africa, Asian, and even Northern America.

And I don’t think the Christians and Catholics in Malaysia want to be known as inheritors and carriers of the sins of their fathers . I think they just want to live, work, and worship in peace and be ensured that their safety be guaranteed in a majority Malay Muslim country.

Why do institutions such as UiTM need to instill such a fear and to unnecessarily turn young and hopefully not-yet-Daesh/IS radicalized students into hating Christians? Why not encourage education  for peace and conflict resolution? Why not teach empathy through ongoing good dialogue among Malaysians of different faiths? Why warn  them of the “dangers of Christianization” and not expect some lunatic fundamentalist groups to take the warning  one step further and translate it into violent action, sanctioned and legitimized by the authorities?

What education should look like

Haven’t we heard the word ‘Islamophobia’? Why create ‘Chistianophobia’ at a time when the world is bipolar, violent, and plagued with all kinds of phobias? Let us come back to our senses.

Here is my thought on what education  should look like if we are to prevent racial and religious riots in future:

The education of today’s bumiputeras via the special  privileges given to them in all aspects, from preschool to postgraduate – especially the education of Malay Muslims through the racially-based institutions linked to the ruling party – has one objective. It is to produce more and more members of the Malay-Muslim-bumiputera privileged class  who will ensure that the non-bumi, non-Muslims be kept outside the gate of equality, equal opportunity and meritocracy, even though they are the rightful citizens of this country whose parents and grandparents have labored for this country so that the most privileged class  of Malays and non-Malays can continue  to be created to enslave the laboring classes of all races.

No need to have a complex understanding of Malaysia’s philosophy of education, national development, frameworks of class evolution, politics of curricular studies, interplay between race, religion, and ideology, or any other complex theories of neo-feudalism to understand this simple fact of education and social reproduction in Malaysia.

isis-malaysia

The Failure of Malaysian Education

We need to turn the system upside down and renew prosperity  in this country, based not on the advancement of this or that race, but the simple human logic that each and every one of us is a human being with dignity and an important part of Humanity.

UiTM was different back in the days, especially in the 70s and early 80s. There is a vast difference in the way Malays were educated in the institution. It was a place to harness the creative energy and problem-solving gung-ho cognitive capabilities of students who had so much energy than just reading books  only, so that they might further their studies and contribute to the development of the nation’s post-independence.

This is because the leadership knew what education  and human liberation meant. Because the first prime minster was a firm, fair, and wise man, the best we have had.However, beginning  in the mid-80s till today has come to look like a place to engineer the development of totalitarianism and fascistic mono-ethnic thinking of a diploma  mill used for political means by political masters only concerned with their own survival and vainglory, in all the excesses of political authority and one-dimensionality instilling fear of others instead of promoting diversity and the love for ethnic differences and cultural beauty.

The difference between our premiers

All these – and not much about the plain honesty of creating a generation  of Malays able to see the true nature of their own potentials and be ready for an ever-changing world of globalizing predatation.

Today’s Prime minster is a very weak and unwise man. Not a good man at all. The worst we have ever had, many are saying.That’s the difference, if we agree . How then must the rakyat reclaim those once admirable institutions?

Wake up, speak up, alumni and all. Education is the art and science of creating the free  man and woman.

“A multicultural, multi-vocalic, multidimensional understanding of Malaysia’s complex society.” This is what we need. This is a major theme on global education and international and intercultural understanding that Malaysian institutions such as UiTM need. This is it, rather than ones that continue  to stupefy students with themes that divide and insult the human intelligence as they relate to race and religion.

These institutions are not fit to be called universities and  educational institutions if they continue  to nurture cognitive-pathological thinking in an institution that is already mono-cultural. This is not necessary for an institution that denies the opportunities for the students to work  together with students of other races, befitting of what Malaysia is and ought to be about.

I hope this misguided paradigm of educational progress and intellectual attainment can be changed with a gradual change in leadership; one that understands what education  in the broadest sense of the word means.

While universities the world over are taking pride in being globalized and often scrambling and racing to make their campuses truly diverse and multicultural, UiTM and the MARA elite secondary schools  that is Maktab Rendah Sains Mara (MRSM) are taking pride in defending the rights to be exclusively one-race, one religion, one-myopic vision at the expense of the development of the students’ minds yearning to be multi-intelligent and able to develop multiple talents.

This has to change. Malaysians need to push for this change – because education  is matter of national interest and survival. Enough of Islamophobia. Enough of Christian and Muslims massacring each other the world over. Let us not create another version of Chistianophobia or Islamophobia right here  in Malaysia.

The need for a new education


December 18, 2015

The need for a new education

by Jesús  Sanchez Granados*

Edited for Brevity–Din Merican

outcomes_4

In the beginning, education and the ideals it embodied aspired to create a “perfect” citizenry. Later,the objective shifted to ensuring that citizens were well-trained, and more recently it shifted once again to the awakening of the critical spirit. Today, the ideal is creativity: the capacity to learn and a lifelong willingness to face new things and modify learned expectations accordingly; there can be no learning without re-learning, without the revision that must be undertaken when we realise the weakness of what we thought we knew. In a knowledge society, education is the capacity to be creative in an environment of particular uncertainty, the capacity to properly manage the cognitive dissonance that gives rise to our failure to comprehend reality (Innerarity, 2010).

Therefore, in the world of liquid modernity, we must move away from sporadic education and towards lifelong learning.This entails overcoming security-driven resistance: the pillars to which we cling because they lend us a sense of security a mistake in a world filled with insecurities and ephemeral validities.

Conventionally, education has been understood as preparation for life, as personal realisation, and as an essential element in progress and social change, in accordance with changing needs (Chitty, 2002). Orr (2004) declares that if certain precautions are not taken, education may equip people to become “more effective vandals of the earth”. He describes education of the sort we have seen thus far as a possible problem, and argues for a new type of education:

More of the same kind of education will only compound our problems. This is not an argument for ignorance but rather a statement that the worth of education must now be measured against the standards of decency and human survival. It is not education but education of a certain kind that will save us.
(Orr, 2008:8)
Education, in other words, can be a dangerous thing (…). It is time, I believe, for an educational ‘perestroika’, by which I mean a general rethinking of the process and substance of education at all levels, beginning with the admission that much of what has gone wrong with the world is the result of education that alienates us from life in the name of human domination, fragments instead of unifies,overemphasizes success and careers, separates feeling from intellect and the practical from the theoretical, and unleashes on the world minds ignorant of their own ignorance.” 
(Orr, 2004: 17) 

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) has emerged as a paradigm for revising and reorienting today’s education. ESD consists of new forms of knowing and learning how to be human in a different way. This education aims to contribute to the sustainability of personal integrity or, in the words of Sterling (2001), to the integrity of the spirit, heart, head and hands.

As argued by Dewey and the educational reconstructionists, it is often not enough to do things according to custom or habit that is,to reproduce the existing social system. Instead, new answers must be sought. If we are to imagine new ways of living and acting, then we must be capable of assessing and bringing about social change, because successfully achieving sustainable development requires the following principles: being aware of the challenge, taking action voluntarily, assuming collective responsibility and forming a constructive partnership, and believing in the dignity of all human beings without exception.

These principles for lasting human development, formulated at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, imply lessons that largely coincide with the four pillars of education set out in the Delors Report: learning to know, learning to do, learning to live together and learning to be.In the context of ESD, UNESCO (2008) suggested the inclusion of a fifth pillar: learning to transform oneself and society. In a sense, education must lead to empowerment: through education, individuals should acquire the capacity to make decisions and act effectively in accordance with those decisions, and this in turn entails the ability to influence the rules of play through any of the available options. Thus, education consists in developing not only personal but also social qualities; it is the development of social conscience: awareness of how society works, knowledge of how it is structured, and a sense of the personal agency and how all together allow and determine intervention and a sense of the extent to which personal agency allows intervention (Goldberg, 2009). Essentially, it opens a dialogue between the personal and the collective, between common and individual interests, between rights and obligations. 

Reformulation of higher education

Einstein once said that no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.Current needs suggest that we must learn to view the world and, therefore, education in a new way.Higher education has in the past demonstrated its crucial role in introducing change and progress in society and is today considered a key agent in educating new generations to build the future, but this does not exempt it from becoming the object of an internal reformulation. 

According to the World Declaration on Higher Education for the 21st Century  (1998), higher education is facing a number of important challenges at the international, national and institutional levels. At the international level, there are two main challenges. The first is the role of supranational organisations such as UNESCO in advancing the prospection of trends and improvements, as well as in promoting networking and twinning programmes among institutions. The European Union (EC-JRC,2010), for example, has stressed that higher education must change and adapt to economic and social needs, that institutional change is essential to educational innovation, and that information and communication technologies must form part of the teaching and learning process. The second international challenge is to encourage international cooperation between institutions in order to share knowledge across borders and facilitate collaboration, which, furthermore, represents an essential element for the construction of a planetary (Morin, 2009) and post-cosmopolitan citizenship (Dobson and Bell, 2006): the assumption of interdependence, “deterritorialisation”, participation,co-responsibility, and solidarity among all inhabitants of the planet. 

States must provide the necessary financing so that universities can carry out their public-service function. States may also enact laws to ensure equality of access and strengthen the role of women in higher education and in society.

The following are the challenges faced by universities and other institutions of higher education:

  • Changes in universities as institutions and at the level of internal organisation. These changes should aim to improve the management of resources (human, economic, etc.) and be restructured to improve internal democracy.Universities must continue their mission to educate, train and carry out research through an approach characterised by ethics, autonomy,responsibility and anticipation.
  • Changes in knowledge creation. Interdisciplinary and trans disciplinary approaches should betaken and non-scientific forms of knowledge should be explored,
  • .Changes in the educational model. New teaching/learning approaches that enable the development of critical and creative thinking should be integrated. The competencies common to all higher-education graduates should be determined and the corresponding expectations should be defined. In a knowledge society, higher education should transform us from disoriented projectiles into guided missiles: rockets capable of changing direction in flight,adapting to variable circumstances, and constantly course-correcting. The idea is to teach people to learn quickly as they go along, with the capacity to change their mind and even renounce previous decisions if necessary, without over thinking or having regrets. Teaching and learning must be more active, connected to real life, and designed with students and their peculiarities in mind.
  • Changes aimed at tapping the potential of information and communication technologies in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The goal of such changes is to create what Prensky (2009) calls digital wisdom.
  • Changes for social responsibility and knowledge transfer. The work of higher education institutions must be relevant. What they do, and what is expected of them must be seen as service to society; their research must anticipate social needs; and the products of their research must be shared effectively.
 *Jesús Granados holds a PhD in Education from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) with a thesis on Education for sustainability and Teaching Geography. Graduated in Geography (UAB), he holds a Master in Social Sciences Education (UAB) and a Master in Environmental Education and Communication (ISEMA). He worked at Universidad de la Rioja and in 2004 moved to the UAB to teach and research at the Faculty of Education, where he implemented, amongst others, the subject of Education for sustainability that was an optional campus subject available for all the degrees at the UAB.  At present,since May 2011 Jesús is working at GUNI as studies, research and contents coordinator. For further information about this article, contact the author at the following e-mail address:  jesusgranadossanchez@gmail.com

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman


November 26, 2015

Remembering an Original Thinker–Physicist Richard P. Feynman

Genius_Gleick

Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything

Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

by Christopher Riley

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/10036024/Richard-Feynman-Life-the-universe-and-everything.html

In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway — a suburb of New York – in May 1918, but his path in life was forged even before this. “If he’s a boy I want him to be a scientist,” said his father, Melville, to his pregnant wife. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, he’d taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus, and in his last year of high school won the New York University Math Championship, shocking the judges not only by his score, but by how much higher it was than those of his competitors.

He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.

Such talents led to him being recruited to the Manhattan Project in the early Forties. Together with some of the greatest minds in physics in the 20th century, Feynman was put to work to help build an atom bomb to use against the Germans before they built one to use against the Allies. Security at the top-secret Los Alamos labs was at the highest level. But for Feynman — a born iconoclast – such control was there to be challenged. When not doing physics calculations he spent his time picking locks and cracking safes to draw attention to shortcomings in the security systems.

“Anything that’s secret I try and undo,” he explained years later. Feynman saw the locks in the same way as he saw physics: just another puzzle to solve. He garnered such a reputation, in fact, that others at the lab would come to him when a colleague was out-of-town and they needed a document from his safe.

Between the safe cracking and the physics calculations, the pace of life at Los Alamos was relentless. But for Feynman these activities were a welcome distraction from a darker life. His wife, Arline, who was confined to her bed in a sanatorium nearby, was slowly dying of TB.

When she died in the summer of 1945, Feynman was bereft. This misery was compounded, a few weeks later, when the first operational atom bomb was dropped on Japan, killing more than 80,000 people. His original reason for applying his physics to the war effort had been to stop the Germans. But its use on the Japanese left Feynman shocked. For the first time in his life he started to question the value of science and, convinced the world was about to end in a nuclear holocaust, his focus drifted.

He became something of a womaniser, dating undergraduates and hanging out with show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. In a celebrated book of anecdotes about his life – Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman – the scientist recounts how he applied an experimental approach to chatting up women. Having assumed, like most men, that you had to start by offering to buy them a drink, he explains how a conversation with a master of ceremonies at a nightclub in Albuquerque one summer prompted him to change tactics. And to his surprise, an aloof persona proved far more successful than behaving like a gentleman.


William Hurt as Richard Feynman in a BBC drama based on his role in the Challenger disaster report

His other method of relaxation in those years was music; his passion for playing the bongos stayed with him for the rest of his life. Physics had slipped down his list of priorities, but he suddenly rediscovered his love for the subject in a most unexpected way. In the canteen at Cornell one lunchtime he became distracted by a student, who had thrown a plate into the air. As it clattered onto the floor Feynman observed that the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. It made him wonder what the relationship was between these two motions.

Playing with the equations which described this movement reminded him of a similar problem concerning the rotational spin of the electron, described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. And this, in turn, led him to Dirac’s theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED); a theory which had tried to make sense of the subatomic world but had posed as many questions as it answered. What followed, Feynman recalled years later, was like a cork coming out of a bottle. “Everything just poured out,” he remembered.

“He really liked to work in the context of things that were supposed to be understood and just understand them better than anyone else,” says Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist who sits today at Feynman’s old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. “That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition – an insight into what was really going on.” Applying this deep insight, Feynman invented an entirely new branch of maths to work on QED, which involved drawing little pictures instead of writing equations.

Richard’s sister, Joan, recalls him working on the problem while staying with her one weekend. Her room-mate was still asleep in the room where Richard had been working. “He said to me, ‘Would you go in the room and get my papers, I wanna start working’,” she remembers. “So I went in the room and I looked for them, but there was no mathematics. It was just these silly little diagrams and I came out and said, ‘Richard, I can’t find your papers, it’s just these kind of silly diagrams’. And he said, ‘That is my work!’” Today Feynman’s diagrams are used across the world to model everything from the behaviour of subatomic particles to the motion of planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos.

Applying them to QED, Feynman came up with a solution which would win him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics. Almost half a century later QED remains our best explanation of everything in the universe except gravity. “It’s the most numerically precise physical theory ever invented,” says Carroll.

Discovering a law of nature and winning a Nobel Prize, for most people, would represent the pinnacle of a scientific career. But for Feynman these achievements were mere stepping stones to other interests. He took a sabbatical to travel across the Caltech campus to the biology department, where he worked on viruses. He also unravelled the social behaviour of ants and potential applications of nanotechnology. And he was active beyond the world of science, trading physics coaching for art lessons with renowned Californian artist Jirayr Zorthian. (While at Caltech he also began frequenting a local strip club, where he would quietly work out his theories on napkins; he found it the ideal place in which to clear his head.)

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early Sixties, Cornell invited him to give the Messenger Lectures – a series of public talks on physics. Watching them today, Feynman’s charisma and charm is as seductive as it was 50 years ago.

“He loved a big stage,” says Carroll. “He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally.”

Recognising this ability, in 1965 Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create and the accompanying textbooks still represent the last word on the history of physics. The lectures themselves were brimming with inspiring “showbiz demonstrations” as his friend Richard Davies describes them. Most memorably, Feynman used to set up a heavy brass ball on a pendulum, send it swinging across the room, and then wait for it to swing back towards him. Students would gasp as it rushed towards his face, but Feynman would stand stock still, knowing it would stop just in front of his nose. Keen to capitalise on these talents for engaging an audience, Christopher Sykes made his film for Horizon. “He took enormous pleasure in exploring life and everything it had to offer,” remembers Sykes. “More than that, he took tremendous pleasure in telling you about it.”

In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.

A series of operations kept Feynman alive and well enough to work on one final important project. In 1986, he joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing the entire crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought bureaucratic intransigence and vested interests to uncover the cause of the accident: rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters that failed to work on the freezing morning of the launch. At a typically flamboyant press conference, Feynman demonstrated his findings by placing a piece of an O-ring in a glass of iced water. But the inquiry had left him exhausted. With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988.

His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’” Twenty-five years after his death, thanks to the web, Feynman’s prophecy has more truth than he could ever have imagined.

Christopher Riley is a visiting professor at the University of Lincoln. His film ‘The Fantastic Mr Feynman’ is on BBC Two on Sunday.

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