There is not a device invented that can measure the joy I have in watching a Richard Feynman lecture. The man was not only a brilliant, Nobel Prize winning scientist, he was a great teacher and communicator of science as well. In this lecture by physicist Brian Cox—in this case speaking to school children for an event at Manchester University—I noticed that Cox played a one-minute clip (14:45 mark) from a Richard Feynman lecture given in the 1960s. Cox set up the clip by saying that it was one of the best definitions of science, or the scientific method, that he'd ever heard. Clear and simple and told in less than a minute. Watch below.
"If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong...."
Here is a transcript from the clip:
"In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature, or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.
If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter 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.”
A bit more on the scientific method (in 10 minutes)
Below is the same clip with an additional nine minutes where Feynman explains, among other things, that guessing is not unscientific. "It is not unscientific to take a guess, although many people who are not in science believe that it is."
Feynman was a great communicator in part because he continually gave examples or told personal stories to illustrate his message. My favorite one here is his telling of his response to a person he met who believed that UFO sightings were real and evidence of extraterrestrial life visiting earth. "So I said I don't believe in flying saucers. My antagonist says 'Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove it's impossible?' I said no, I can't prove it's impossible. It's just very unlikely!" Feynman goes on to say that it is scientific to say what is more likely and what is less likely. Feynman summed up his reply to the man who believed in flying saucers like this:
"It is much more likely that the reports on flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence, rather than the unknown rational efforts of extraterrestrial intelligence. It's just more likely, that's all. And it's a good guess. We always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of our mind that if it doesn't work, then we must discuss the other possibilities."