The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
Bless You, Dr. Kevorkian by Kurt Vonnegut
reviewed by Scott Butki
Richard Feynman and Kurt Vonnegut are two of my heroes and
those are damn hard to find these days. Both are fascinating, smart and
Feynman was a writer who managed to make this simple-minded
reader really excited to read about science.
I read with relish Feynman's two autobiographical books,
Surely You're Joking, Dr. Feynman and What Do You Care What People Think, when
they came out.
The latter contained Feynman's explanation of how he
discovered, and announced to the world, why the Challenger space shuttle blew
up. He was the sole scientist on a panel ordered to investigate the accident
and he took that role seriously.
I actually stayed up all night reading his account, much to
the shock of my parents, who thought I was reading a mystery, not something
resembling a scientific treatise.
His Challenger report is included, which ends with this
comment: "NASA owes it to the citizens from which it asks support to be frank,
honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions
for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality
must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Sadly Feynman died in 1988, just as non-scientists around
the world were learning, via Surely You're Joking, about what a great guy he
was. His new book is a collection of essays, speeches and interviews by
Feynman. The topics range from Galileo to Los Alamos to evolution. Feynman is a
brilliant man and yet so human, a man who spent some of his time making the
bomb at Los Alamos learning how to crack safes and get past censors so he could
correspond by mail with his ailing wife. In these books he thinks out loud
about his role in making the bomb, about life and death and other matters.
"I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a
view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, 'Look
how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says, 'You see, I as an
artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this
all apart and it becomes a dull thing."
"And I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the
beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too,I believe,
although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can
appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the
flower that he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions
inside which also have a beauty...."
Also, the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower
evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting - it means
that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense
also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting
questions which shows that a scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement
and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don't understand how it
Feynman taught me that science can be interesting and that
scientists do indeed think about the implications of their work.
Meanwhile, Vonnegut showed me that life is indeed weird and
absurd and hilarious and that there is nothing wrong with realizing that and
pointing it out to others. His writing has gone down in quality in recent years
but some of his early works remain classics.
This new book began as a collection of 90-second interludes
broadcast on WNYC public radio. In them, he uses the literary device of
pretending he is going into the afterlife and coming back with interviews.
He reports on meeting with John Brown (still mad about that
execution thing), James Earl Ray (who says he never would have shot Martin
Luther King if he knew it would turn King into a martyr) and others. At one
point he attempts to interview William Shakespeare, trying to get answers to
centuries'-old questions. But Shakespeare lets loose with remarks that leaves
Vonnegut calls his work controlled near-death experiences,
which are done with the help of his pal, Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The interviews
must end, though, when Kevorkian is jailed for his real, successful attempts at
helping people die.
But overall the book leaves a flat taste in this reader's
mouth. Some jokes just aren't funny, most of the interviews are, at most, two
pages and the entire book is about 78 pages.
The reader is left wanting more. But if this all Vonnegut
can give at this point, then it's still better than nothing.
Scott Butki writes for a newspaper in