[FoRK] [archive] Alan Alda's '02 Commencement -- and the "worth
Thu Jun 16 18:19:53 PDT 2005
I've been looking for a definitive rendering of this Fermilab story
for some years... used to excellent effect here. Also, QED was an
extraordinary play -- I saw it in NYC some years later, and Alan
clearly inhabited that 'character' quite fully, down to the accent! --RK
> Wilson built Fermilab, the giant atom smasher in Illinois. But at a
> congressional hearing in 1969, he was grilled by Senator John
> Pastore, who wanted to know what an atom smasher was good for. Does
> it in any way contribute to the security of the country?
> Wilson said, "No, sir, I do not believe so. "
> "It has no value in that respect?" the senator asked.
> Wilson looked at him and said, "It only has to do with the respect
> with which we regard one another, the dignity of people, our love
> of culture . . . In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do
> with honor and country. But it has nothing to do directly with
> defending our country?except to help make it worth defending."
Alan Alda's Commencement speech to the Caltech class of 2002
Twenty-five or thirty years ago, on my days off from the Korean War,
which was at that time being waged at Twentieth Century Fox in
Beverly Hills, I would often come to Pasadena to visit the Rembrandts
at the Norton Simon Gallery, or take a walk in the Huntington
Gardens. And sometimes I would drive by Caltech and give it a glance
and wonder what interesting stuff was going on in there. I had been
reading about science avidly for years and I was immensely curious
about how scientists went about what they did. It didn?t occur to me
each time I passed by that there was one particular man in one of
these buildings who at that moment might have been drawing gluon
tubes on a blackboard, or playing the bongos, or just standing
looking out the window as a young woman passed by?a man in whom, in a
few years, I would become intensely interested.
One day, exactly 28 years ago, he was standing right here, giving the
commencement address. This is the way the universe operates. First
Richard Feynman gives the talk; then, 28 years later, an actor who
played him on the stage gives it. This is what?s called entropy. This
is what happens just before the cosmos reaches a temperature of
Let me tell you a little about the path that led me here. After I had
read several books about Richard Feynman, I brought one of them, a
charming, touching book by Ralph Leighton, called Tuva or Bust, to
Gordon Davidson at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. I wondered if
he thought we might be able to make a play about Feynman. He
suggested Peter Parnell to write the play, and the three of us
started off on a journey to find out who Richard Feynman was. We
thought we?d open the play a year or so later. Instead, it took us
over six years.
We had no idea how hard it would be. For one thing, he was an
extremely unusual person. Toward the end of his life, he knew he was
dying and he knew exactly what the most important questions were, and
he knew he had a shot at answering them . . . and yet he kept to his
habit of doing only what interested him.
He spent a good part of his time trying to get to this little place
in the middle of Asia called Tuva, mainly because its capital was
spelled with no vowels, which, for some reason, he found extremely
But, just as getting to Tuva was tantalizingly difficult for Feynman,
getting to Feynman became maddeningly hard for us.
What part of him do you focus on? He helped create the atomic bomb,
he helped figure out why the Challenger blew up, he understood the
most puzzling questions in physics so deeply they gave him the Nobel
Prize. Which facet of him do you let catch the most light? The one
who was a revered teacher, a bongo player, an artist, a hilarious
raconteur or a safecracker?
We wanted to make a play about Feynman, but which Feynman?
A mathematician friend of mine suggested that a central image for a
play about him could be Feynman?s own idea of a sum over histories.
Just as Feynman saw a photon taking every possible path on its way to
your eye, Feynman himself took every possible path on his way through
life. He was the sum of all his histories.
Well, nature may be smart enough to know how to average all the paths
of a photon. But, we three theater people couldn?t figure out how to
add up all the histories that made up Feynman. At one point, I said,
"You know what we ought to do? We ought to write a play about three
guys sitting around in a hotel room, trying to figure out a play
about Feynman. They never figure it out. They just drive themselves
We researched him like mad, of course. The people who knew him and
worked with him and loved him here at Caltech opened their doors and
their hearts to us. They were extremely generous and helpful, as we
struggled to reduce this irreducible person to an evening in the
I think one of the things I most hoped would come through was his
honesty. He never wanted to deceive anyone, especially himself. He
questioned his every assumption. And when he was talking to ordinary
people with no training in physics, he never fell back on his
authority as a great thinker. He felt that if he couldn?t say it in
everyday words, he probably didn?t understand it himself.
I was fascinated by this in him. He knew more than most of us will
ever know, and yet he insisted on speaking our language.
Like Dante in his time, he could say the most exquisitely subtle
things in the language of the common people. He was an American
genius, and like many American artists, he was direct and colloquial?
not afraid to take a look at the ordinary, and not afraid to go
deeply into it to reveal the extraordinary roots of ordinary things.
And yet, he recoiled from oversimplification. He wasn?t interested in
dumbing down science? he was looking for clarity.
If he left something out, he always told you what he was leaving out,
so you didn?t get a false picture of a simplicity that wasn?t there.
And, later when things got more complex, you were prepared for it. He
treated you, in other words, with respect.
But there was something else about him that fascinates me.
I was reading a book by Freeman Dyson the other day and a paragraph
about Feynman jumped off the page at me.
"Dick was? a profoundly original scientist [Dyson says]. He refused
to take anybody's word for anything. This meant that he was forced to
rediscover or reinvent for himself almost the whole of physics . . .
He said that he couldn't understand the official version of quantum
mechanics that was taught in textbooks, and so he had to begin afresh
from the beginning . . .
At the end he had a version of quantum mechanics that he could
I think I saw something in this paragraph for the first time;
something suddenly clicked into place. The fact that he wouldn't take
anybody's word for anything wasn't new to me, or that he needed to go
through every step himself in order to understand it. A phrase of his
has been on the blackboard behind me every night as I?ve played
Feynman: "What I cannot create, I do not understand."
(People have asked us why that phrase is given so much prominence in
the play. It's because the blackboard on our set contains pretty much
everything that was on the final blackboard left by Feynman in his
office when he died. And "What I cannot create, I do not understand"
was right up there at the top.)
But what did jump out at me the other day was the phrase "he couldn't
understand the official version of quantum mechanics that was taught
in textbooks." Now, this is Feynman we?re talking about. I suddenly
had this picture in my head of Feynman going through the same
experience the rest of us do . . . meeting that same blank wall half
way up the mountain. I wondered. Did that give him the ability to
remember what it was like to start that climb?
So, maybe it wasn't just that he could visualize these little
particles and their interactions that made him able to communicate it
to the rest of us, maybe it was also that he could remember what it
was like to feel dumb.
Now, here's why I'm going on about this. It may not seem important
how Feynman did it. Maybe we should just be glad he could do it and
let it go at that. But I think it is important. Because, I think we
have to figure out how we can do it, too.
For one thing, we live in a time when massive means of destruction
are right here in our hands. We?re probably the first species capable
of doing this much damage to our planet. We can make the birds stop
singing; we can still the fish and make the insects fall from the
trees like black rain. And ironically we?ve been brought here by
reason, by rationality. We cannot afford to live in a culture that
doesn?t use the power in its hands with the kind of rationality that
produced it in the first place.
But right now, instead of reason, a lot of people are making use of
wishes, dreams, mantras, and incantations. They?re trying to heal
themselves using crystals, magnets, and herbs with unknown
properties. People will offer you a pill made from the leaf of an
obscure plant and say, ?Take it, it can?t hurt you, it?s natural.?
But so is deadly nightshade.
Interestingly, they expect the plant to have active properties to
cure them, but they?re certain it has no active properties that can
harm them. How do they know that?
I mention this, not to denigrate anyone?s beliefs (I feel strongly
that we?re all entitled to our beliefs, just as we?re entitled to our
feelings) but I bring it up to point out that we?re in a culture that
increasingly holds that science is just another belief.
And I guess it's easier to believe something . . . anything . . .
than not to know.
We don't like uncertainty?so we gravitate back to the last
comfortable solution we had?no matter how cockeyed it is.
But Feynman was comfortable with not knowing. He enjoyed it. He would
proceed for a while with an idea as if he believed it was the answer.
But that was only a temporary belief in order to allow himself to
follow it wherever it led. Then, a little while later, he would
vigorously attack the idea to see if it could stand up to every test
he could think of. If it couldn't stand up, then he simply decided he
just didn?t know. ?Not knowing,? he said, ?is much more interesting
than believing an answer which might be wrong.?
You're graduating today partly as Feynman's heirs in this gloriously
courageous willingness to be unsure. And just as he was heir to
Newton, who was in turn heir to Galileo . . . I hope you'll think
about devoting some time to helping the rest of us become your heirs.
I?m assuming you?re here at Caltech because you love science, and I?m
assuming you?ve learned a great deal here about how to do science.
I?m asking you today to devote some significant part of your life to
figuring out how to share your love of science with the rest of us.
But not just because explaining to us what you do will get you more
funding for what you do . . . although it surely will . . . but just
because you love what you do.
And while you're explaining it, remember that dazzling us with jargon
might make us sit in awe of your work, but it won't make us love it.
Tell us frankly how you got there. If you got there by many twists
and turns and blind alleys, don't leave that out. We love a detective
story. If you enjoyed the adventure of getting there, so will we.
Most scientists do leave that out. By the time we hear about their
great discoveries, a lot of the doubt is gone. The mistakes and wrong
turns are left out . . . and it doesn?t sound like a human thing
they?ve done. It separates us from the process.
Whatever you do, help us love science the way you do.
Like the young man so head over heels about his sweetheart he can?t
stop talking about her, like the young woman so in love with her
young man she wants everyone to know how wonderful he is . . . show
us pictures, tell us stories, make us crave to meet your beloved.
Don?t just tell us science is good for us and, therefore, we ought to
fund you for it; don't tell us to trust you that your fancy words
actually mean something; don't keep the tricks of your trade up an
elite sleeve. Don?t be merchants, or mandarins, or magicians . . . be
Look, we?re accustomed in our culture to know when a commercial is
coming. We know how to turn it off. But love we can't resist.
You may be swayed by people who insist they're only interested in
hearing about the practical applications of science. You may be
tempted to bend over backwards, telling them what they want to hear.
When Feynman stood here and spoke 28 years ago, he cautioned
scientists against going too far in telling laypeople about the
wonderful everyday applications of their work, especially if there
weren?t any. He felt it wasn?t honest to pretend there was such a
benefit just to get funding for your work.
It's a powerful urge, but it's possible to resist it.
Robert R. Wilson resisted it beautifully. Bob Wilson was a physicist
who Feynman had known well. He had helped recruit Feynman for the Los
Alamos project. Wilson was also an accomplished sculptor. He had a
foot in each of C. P. Snow's Two Cultures.
Wilson built Fermilab, the giant atom smasher in Illinois. But at a
congressional hearing in 1969, he was grilled by Senator John
Pastore, who wanted to know what an atom smasher was good for. Does
it in any way contribute to the security of the country?
Wilson said, "No, sir, I do not believe so. "
"It has no value in that respect?" the senator asked.
Wilson looked at him and said, "It only has to do with the respect
with which we regard one another, the dignity of people, our love of
culture . . . In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with
honor and country. But it has nothing to do directly with defending
our country?except to help make it worth defending."
Like Wilson, I don't think Feynman needed to justify his curiosity
Pure science was pure pleasure. It was fun.
It's like the story of the plate.
The one thing I was certain of from the beginning was that we had to
have the story of the plate in the play. It was central. The author,
Peter Parnell, would do draft after draft. And I would look at it and
say, "Where?s the plate?" I drove him crazy.
The plate story is this: After the war, Feynman became depressed. His
first wife had just died of tuberculosis and the realization of the
awful destructive power of the bomb he had helped make had finally
sunk in. He was teaching at Cornell, but he had no taste for it. He
couldn't concentrate. Then, one day, he's in the school cafeteria and
some guy starts fooling around, tossing a plate in the air. Feynman
watches the design on the rim of the plate as it spins and he sees
that as it spins, the plate wobbles. He gets fascinated, and he tries
to figure out the relationship between the spin and the wobble. He
spends months on this. And finally comes up with this complicated
equation, which he shows to Hans Bethe.
And Bethe says, "That's interesting, Feynman, but what's the
importance of it?" And Feynman says, ?It has no importance, it?s just
But, see, that's the thing?it not only brought him out of his slump,
but that playful inquiry, according to Feynman, eventually led in a
circuitous way to the work that won him the Nobel Prize.
But no matter where it might have led him, he made up his mind that
day in the cafeteria never to work on anything that didn't interest
him, that wasn't fun.
Of course, what Feynman was looking for was serious fun. It was the
awe he felt when he looked at nature. And not just the official great
wonders of nature, but any little part of nature, because any little
part of it is as amazing and beautiful and complicated as the whole
So, this is interesting. I'm urging you to be like someone who I
admit I've found to be pretty elusive.
Here I am, seven years later. And, just as Feynman never got to see
Tuva, I never really found Feynman. Not really. I came close; but he
was too many things. He had too many histories.
We came up with a play in QED that was immensely satisfying. It was
beautifully written and beautifully directed and it gave the audience
a Feynman that was as close an approximation as we could come up
with. But part of me feels that a large chunk of the man is still
beyond our reach?probably beyond the reach of anyone. He's just out
of sight, smiling at us. Laughing at how he put one over on us,
letting us think he was just an ordinary guy. A guy we could get.
It turns out, though, that the old thing about the destination not
being as valuable as the journey really is true.
Because, when we began, finding Feynman seemed important, and I guess
it was . . . but as it turned out, looking for Feynman has been the fun.
Every once in a while, though, I can feel Feynman looking over my
shoulder, and he's not smiling. Like right now. I'm at the end of my
talk and I feel the pressure of the words he closed his talk with 28
years ago. "One last piece of advice," he said; "never say you'll
give a talk unless you know clearly what you're going to talk about
and more or less what you're going to say."
In other words, where are the brass tacks?
Okay, let me be more or less practical. I'm going to propose
something to you today. I realize it's a childish idea, something
only an unschooled layperson would come up with, but it's specific
enough that it might get you thinking.
What if each of you decided to take just one thing you love about
science and, no matter how complicated it is, figure out a how to
make it understood by a million people? There are about 500 of you
taking part in this ceremony today. If just a few of you were
successful, that would make several million people a lot smarter.
How you do it is up to you. You're clever people, and I bet you come
up with some ingenious solutions. On the other hand, you may be
thinking, "WHY? Why should I do this impossible thing?"
Well, I don't know, maybe for the same reason that the birds sing.
If it does for you what it does for birds, there's a lot to recommend
1) It's a good way to improve your chances of having sex.
2) It feels good to sing.
3) Singing is the music nature makes when it dances the dance of life.
You are the universe announcing itself to itself. You open your mouth
and a little muscle in your throat makes a corner of nature vibrate.
You're one part of the forest saying, "This is what I think I know,"
while another part of the forest is saying, "Yeah? Well this is what
I think I know!" Your chirpings are the harmony of all knowledge.
You've learned so much in this place about how nature works. Is there
anything more beautiful than that? Is there anything greater to sing
So sing. Sing out. Sing. Out.
Thank you, and good luck
More information about the FoRK