Saturday, March 05, 2005

What the Bleep Did Feynman Know?

As a musician and college-town resident, I have no shortage of friends who urge me to run out and see What the Bleep do We Know?

It is, they gush enthusiastically, a wonderful explanation of how quantum mechanics shows that [fill in the blank]. The academics the movie calls on are professors at places like The Maharishi International University, in Fairfield, Iowa.

Personally, I'd sooner go see a museum full of Ward Churchill paintings, but hey .... Different strokes.

These are folks who sincerely liked the movie, so I thank them for their recommendations.

If they persist, I ask whether the movie takes a wave-mechanics approach or a matrix-mechanics approach. They change the subject.

Now, science books come in two flavors: real science books, which non-scientists find boring or impenetrable, and books "about science," which are simplifications of a field, or human-interest stories about scientists.

There are great books in each category. Honest Jim Watson, for example, wrote a truly great book about science, The Double Helix. and a a truly great real-science book, Molecular Biology of the Gene. (Get the 1965, 1st ed., if you run across it in a used-book store.)

The first of these was a New York Times best-seller, written by a guy smart, clever, and lucky enough to earn a Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology.

The second preached the biological importance of hydrogen bonds, with the literary style of someone who could write a NYT best-seller.

But are there real-science books written for the general public?

Yes, sirree.

Dick Feynman shows how it's done with QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, a set of four talks about Quantum Electrodynamics he gave to a ladies luncheon club in New Zealand.

Want to hear what Feynman really thought like? As you read it, imagine the whole thing delivered with a wry smile and a heavy Brooklyn accent.

You'll hear him answereing the question "What the Bleep Do We Know?"

"Well, a lot of stuff, actually."

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