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Entries in Six Easy Pieces (1)

Friday
Jan282011

Six And Five Easy Pieces


La Cabana de Burt Burgen

From Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman (emphases his):

"The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific 'truth.' But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from?

"Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations—to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess. This imagining process is so difficult that there is a division of labor in physics: there are theoretical physicists who imagine, deduce, and guess at new laws, but do not experiment; and then there are experimental physicists who experiment, imagine, deduce, and guess. ...

"How can an experiment be 'wrong'? First, in a trivial way: if something is wrong with the apparatus that you did not notice. But these things are easily fixed, and checked back and forth. So without snatching at such minor things, how can the results of an experiment be wrong? Only by being inaccurate.

"For example, the mass of an object never seems to change: a spinning top has the same weight as a still one. So a 'law' was invented ... [But] a true law is: if an object moves with a speed of less than 100 miles a second the mass is constant to within one part in a million. In some such approximate form this is a correct law. So in practice one might think that the new law makes no significant difference.

"Well, yes and no.

 "For ordinary speeds we can certainly forget it and use the simple constant-mass law as a good approximation. But for high speeds we are wrong, and the higher the speed, the more wrong we are.

"Finally, and most interesting, philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only by a little bit. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas.”

From Five Easy Pieces, "Betty":

“When I was four, just four years old, I went to my mother and I said, ‘What's this hole in my chin?' I saw this dimple in my chin in the mirror, and didn't know what it was.

"And my mother said—get what my mother says—she says, ‘When you're born, you go on a assembly line past God, and if He likes you, He says ‘You cute little thing!’ and you get dimples there (grabs her cheeks with both her hands). And if He doesn't like you, He goes, ‘Go away’ (presses one finger on her chin).

"So about six months later, my mother found me saying my prayers, and I was going, Now I lay me down to sleep...’ (holds one hand over her chin).

"My mother says, ‘What are you covering up your chin for?’

"And I said, ‘Because if I cover up the hole, maybe He'll listen to me.’”