A Thing of Very Great Value

For Christmas my brother gave me a copy of “The Meaning of it All” a book containing a series of three lectures Richard Feynman gave in April of 1963 at the University of Washington. Here is an excerpt from his first speech titled “The Uncertainty of Science” and although he is talking directly about the field of science Feynman knows how the application of this lesson reaches far beyond that.

“And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true.”

Feynman later speaks on the importance of having the freedom to doubt and the struggle to be permitted to doubt. He does not want us to forget the importance of doubt and recognizing ignorance, he even “demand[s] this freedom for future generations.” Sure we have doubt and an abundance of ignorance, but I feel far too often I don’t use it to seek a new path or ask more questions. It is far more often something to be ashamed of or a way to complain without taking any action.

If we are to believe what Feynman says than we must accept “…doubt is not a fearful thing, but a thing of very great value.”

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5 Responses to “A Thing of Very Great Value”


  1. 1 Gardner January 6, 2008 at 12:01 am

    I love that Feynman book and need to read it again–our former Dean, Phil Hall, turned me on to it. I also love “What do you care what other people think?” Feynman’s account of his work on the Challenger commission is riveting stuff.

    Now we have even more to talk about next time we’re sipping our lattes.

  2. 2 Barbara January 6, 2008 at 9:50 am

    I, too, love that book, Shannon. And I like that you pull out the bit on doubt and put your finger on how we do not “use it to seek a new path or ask more questions. It is far more often something to be ashamed of or a way to complain without taking any action.” Fear of being foolish or wrong–fear of the Other. Inertia. Self-doubt. Laziness.

    In education, inadvertently (perhaps) we inculcate that fear and inertia when we (teachers) do not value the beauty of “glorious failures” and the power of play and of daring to speak what you really feel and think . Mose Allison said, “Artists are those who never get it right.”

  3. 3 sehauser January 7, 2008 at 2:00 pm

    @Gardner – I plan on reading more of Feynman’s stuff, he is such an interersting guy and not be that in tune with the science side of things I like getting that perspective. I look forward to lattes, yum.

    @Barbara – I just love it when it turns out a bunch of people are already familiar with something that I happen to be reading. You actually came to mind when I was writing this post. I just love the phrase “glorious failures”, there is so much time and effort going to waste because of fear, we need to be ok with being human.


  1. 1 Got Fear? » A Thing of Very Great Value " Loaded Learning Trackback on January 7, 2008 at 9:10 am
  2. 2 Got Fear? » A Thing of Very Great Value ” Loaded Learning Trackback on January 10, 2008 at 7:07 pm

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