Richard Feynman

Asking Deep Questions

Most people think simple questions ought to have simple answers. But one of the things I learned studying math at the University of Toronto was that the longer the question, the easier it was to answer. But when the questions are short an simple, the answer is anything but. 

The late Richard Feynman, physics professor at Cal Tech and Nobel Laureate, exemplifies this perfectly when a journalist tries to ask him why magnets repel:

Life, The Universe and Everything (Scientific)

Physicist Sean Carroll is one of my favourite living humans. He currently teaches at CalTech where he has the desk which belonged to (the legendary) Richard Feynman, one of my favourite dead humans. He gave a talk at The Royal Institution in the UK about his latest book, The Big Picture

One of the greatest things to happen in the past ten years was YouTube's removal of the 10-minute time limit on videos. Now entire talks like this one are available to view world-wide for free in quality comparable to your television. The amount of learning that's now possible for people who don't want to spend weeks sitting through courses that aren't connected with their jobs is unbelievable.

I think that's important because the progress of science has been so fast. Many things that are now well-established facts were, a generation ago, unanswerable mysteries. So those subjects needed to be treated with polite agnosticism. I love Sean's ability to gently but firmly articulate what we do and don't know about those deep once-mysterious questions. It turns out we do know how our species got here, what happens when we die and whether or not you can bend spoons with your mind or talk to the dead.  

Enjoy The BIg Picture:


There's also a short Q&A which follows his talk which was posted separately.

And this is not the first time I've shared a talk from The Royal Institution. A pair of free tickets to the first person who can identify the historical significance of that oddly shaped desk Sean is standing behind in the video in the comments.

Tell me something I don't know

I posted recently about two episodes of Freakonomics Radio that I found particularly insightful. Now one of the hosts of the show, Stephen Dubner, has created a game show, Tell Me Something I don't know.

There is a wonderful new trend in entertainment (which, like most trends is really just a revival of an old trend) which celebrates curiosity and what Richard Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. This game show challenges contestants to tell a panel of learned judges something they didn't know before. 

The latest episode, titled It's Alive, includes facts about killer snails, zombie jellyfish and poop. You can listen at and be entertained with your education.

This follows on the tradition of a UK show called QI (which stands for Quite Interesting) which was a game show with a similarly strange educational bent. Actually, if you listen through to the credits at the end, you'll hear that their "transatlantic consultant" is one of the "QI Elves" and co-hosts of the podcast No Such Thing as a Fish


I'm a strange enough person that when I was young I had a favourite physicist. This was in the days before YouTube when if you wanted to learn about someone you had to have a book, or happen upon something on TV live.

Since Richard Feynman passed away when I was three, there was not really any new material on him coming out. By the time I finished university, I had read all of the published books and listened to the audio lectures. Shortly after that, Bill Gates released Project Tuva [which now seems to be a deal link - the videos are now hosted by Cornell].

But now all the little snippets of interviews and documentaries have managed to make their way online so I was able to enjoy this wonderful collection of quotable and insightful Feynman:

The Big Picture: Sean Carroll Explains It All

I recently completed Sean Carroll's most recent book, The Big Picture: On the Origin of Life, Meaning and the Universe ItselfIt is, undeniably, one of the best books I've read in the past few years and one that I will start recommending to everyone forthwith. 9780525954828

It's a book written entirely about physics which somehow manages to be a book about religion in spirituality. The closest comparison I can think of is Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker. It demolished a large number of rather deeply held religious beliefs, not by attacking them, per say, but simply by explaining what we actually knew about science.

Carroll is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist that works at Caltech. (I found out in one of the interviews that the desk in his office used to belong to one of my other heroes, the late Richard Feynman.) What Watchmaker did for biology, this book does for physics and cosmology and it's been long overdue.

Most people who stop learning about science in high school simply don't know just how much we actually know about the universe. It's very easy to make the (fallacious) leap from "I don't know" to "nobody knows" without skipping a beat. But the information is out there, and has been for a very long time.

Spirituality and religion survives largely by leveraging the unknown. Narratives about how the universe began and what happens after we die survive because very few people are willing to put in the years it takes to learn the science to prove them wrong. And for the most part, science stays politely silent in what is usually called "tolerance". But — as is extremely well explained in the book — the science that definitely disproves notions like the existence of the soul, the afterlife, and an anthropomorphic deity that takes an interest in our lives is really well understood.

It's gotten slightly worse in recent years because of the magical-sounding properties of quantum mechanics. They're only magical when they're poorly understood, so it's nice to have someone who actually understands them and their predictions explain them.

But establishing what we know is only part of the book. In the latter sections, he outlines the consequences of these scientific facts for more philosophical matters like meaning, purpose, free will and morality. It's a wonderful resource to have all of this addressed in one place.

If you don't want to splurge for the whole book, the author gives a fantastic interview at Inquiring Minds that's worth checking out. The interviewer, Indre Viskontas, says that some of the later sections actually made her cry. I didn't go quite that far, even though I cry at mostly anything, but I still definitely recommend the book, more or less to everyone.

Ethical Magicians?

I've been listening to the episode of Discourse in Magic on "ethics". The episode is an extended interview with my friend, Ben Train. The episode is over an hour long so I'm not sure how many people would be willing to sit through it. It raises some interesting points including ones with which I disagree. Ben Train-19

Ben Train demonstrates mindreading on Magic Tonight.

I was interested in hearing the episode because while Ben and I have discussed this topic previously, I have no idea what the hosts of this program thought about it.

The episode is slightly misnamed. It's titled "ethics and morals for the modern magician" although the entire episode is focused around one fairly specific concrete example which was actually a piece of mentalism.

Mentalism is a proper subset of magic but in the past decade has undergone a kind of grass-roots rebranding. A traditional mentalist was (ostensibly) reading minds and seeing into the future. The current mentalist tends to be more of a Sherlock Holmes-style character that gathers information by making very detailed observations and spinning those tiny clues into full fledged theories about whodunnit. One of the reasons that Holmes was so impressive was that he was a fictional character and he had the benefit of an omniscient author who could secretly feed him the right answer. Similarly, the mentalist has the tools of a magician at his disposal to secretly gain access to the requisite information and most of the "observation" is just to keep up the pretences.

The ethical problem they were obsessing over was, "What happens when the audience accepts the red herring?" Ben actually gave some specific examples that I found troubling — people who saw his show and were legitimately misled into believing untrue things. At the same time, I was also surprised by the realization that in my own work, I don't have these problems at all and I couldn't explain why.

I've been a life-long skeptic, inspired at an early age by the writing of Douglas Adams and Richard Feynman, and later by Penn & Teller's Bullshit. I believe (deeply) that false beliefs are harmful and we have a moral obligation towards others not to spread them if we can avoid it. That makes performing magic problematic because a magic trick, properly executed, would seem to be spreading false beliefs; namely that something which should not be possible is. Performing magic while not being  giant hypocrite is a problem which doesn't appear to have an obvious solution. That's also why I perform so little magic for children, but spend a lot of time teaching magic to them. The idea that an honestly curious young person would ask me to explain something to them and that it should be my responsibility to not do that just bugs me too damn much.

Now it's worth considering the possibility that Ben is simply not doing anything wrong. I know there are people who think that the magic they see on television is undeniable proof that demons are working through humans and that it is being covered up by the networks who are owned by the Illuminati. They are so far down the rabbit hole of wingnuttery that they are certainly beyond my ability to help. (And yes, they're real, I've had conversations with them.) But to design a show with that sort of person in mind would be to lose all perspective.

Ben Train reading minds

Ben Train demonstrates advanced Mindreading

But there is probably more to it than that. This specific example is problematic because it implies, at least to some extent, that what is being performed is based in science. The label of science is what cranks and frauds reach for to gain credibility. You're relying on the audience's ignorance of science to justify your practice. For my own personal morality, that is a line I choose not to cross, and I don't perform any material in this vein.

This tradition is not exactly new. Magicians have used science as a cloak for their work for over a century. Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin would claim he could make his son float by drugging him.

There are (at least) two ways around the problem, both of which they danced quite close to on the podcast. The first example they brought up was Captain America. Why is it that people are able to see Captain America without becoming concerned about the black market for Vibranium? Moreover, why can't we bring our audiences to the same place?

Performers seem to have an inner shut-eye charlatan which is desperate to convince people that what they do is real. Not only do I have to read minds, I have to make it "believable" — whatever that might mean. Looking at the example of Captain America, it's possible to realize the obsession with realism is misplaced. In order for something to be interesting, engaging or astonishing, it is absolutely not necessary for it to be real. In one of his Stanford theoretical physics lectures which he had facetiously dubbed "Quantum Mechanics for Old People", Leonard Susskind said, "I never use the term real. I find it very misleading."

You can get much more mileage by demonstrating something which is apparently supernatural and having faith (!) in the audience not to start a religion around you, than you can by demonstrating the same phenomenon with a pseudo-scientific explanation.

Part of that is simply having an attitude of respect for my audience. This comes from the other subject they briefly touched on: Penn & Teller. They follow in the "honest liar" tradition along with performers like James Randi. There is deception, but there is (confusingly) no attempt to hide the existence of the deception. When watching them, there is no pretence of trying to convince you of anything. [1] They know cool things, you don't, that makes this interesting.

Unfortunately, we get in the habit of underestimating the audience. This stems from a time when we were younger. Most magicians start out primarily performing for children. When you're surrounded by five and six year olds, it's not hard to be the smartest person in the room. But I've seen many people carry that attitude over to their adult audiences. I try and take the opposite approach and when I walk into  room and assume that I am average or, more specifically, that half the room is smarter than me.

When someone is watching me do magic, I assume (possibly out of courtesy more then an actual evidence) that this person is scientifically literate and know some basic facts about the universe (magic is not real, astrology is bullshit, the dead to not return as ghosts to help with card tricks). I never have to say anything, but if by nothing other than subtext, I can get that across, that frees us up to enjoy the incredible things which happen without obsessing over fake causes. And if someone really wants to know how I learned any of this, I tell them.

Ethics are extremely important in magic. We do walk a fine line. Lying for money is never easy.


[1] When not convincing people that Teller is the Saviour of all synthetic fabrics.