Dec 302012
 
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A good scientist must be willing to be wrong.

In 1964, the occasionally enigmatic but always energetic physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Cornell University to a packed hall of eager, young scholars. Feynman’s demeanor was crisp and purposeful that day, a style reinforced by his sharp appearance. The professor’s hair was neat and tidy, and he was keenly attired in a trim, tailored suit.

His right hand grasping a piece of chalk, his left had nestled in his coat pocket, Feynman started to speak. “I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law,” he said in his unvarnished Queens accent, referring to his work as a theoretical physicist.

Feynman walked over to the chalkboard and began to write. His oration continued, almost in a manner synced with his scribbling. “First we guess it… Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results… directly to observation to see if it works.”

Feynman paused, removed his left hand from his coat pocket, and strode back over to the lectern to briefly peruse some notes. He then launched right back into his sermon.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong,” he asserted, craning his neck forward and adroitly pointing his left hand at the chalkboard to accentuate the point. “In that simple statement, is the key to science.”

“It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is,” Feynman proclaimed, gesticulating in wide, circular, somewhat flamboyant motions. “It doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Feynman was absolutely right.

A good scientist must be willing to be wrong. Such an inclination is liberating, for it allows him or her to investigate potential answers — however unlikely they may be — to the difficult questions inspired by this vast, wondrous universe. Not only that, a willingness to be wrong frees a scientist to pursue any avenue opened by evidence, even if that evidence doesn’t support his or her original hunch.

“The hard but just rule is that if the ideas don’t work, you must throw them away,” The great science communicator Carl Sagan wrote. “Don’t waste neurons on what doesn’t work. Devote those neurons to new ideas that better explain the data.”

Read more . . .

via Scientific American -  Steven Ross Pomeroy
 

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