It’s clear from Feynman’s lectures that he doesn’t just understand physics—he understands humans. As I discussed in my previous essay on Feynman’s “Conservation of Energy,” Feynman lectures for the everyman. Although some basic understanding of algebra is required for comprehension of Feynman’s content, he includes so much humanity that even bibliophiles like myself can “get it.” Rather than beginning with pure, straight science, Feynman introduces “The Theory of Gravitation” with the context of his discussion, a history of the topic itself featuring Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and the planets: an admiration, he calls it, of the human mind and of the nature that follows “such an elegantly simple principle as the law of gravitation.” Throughout his chapter, Feynman presents material as relational, a characteristic that I’d say is inescapably human.
I first noted a comment of Feynman’s on the relationality of something when he talks about Kepler’s third law, which “deals not with only a single planet, but relates one planet to another.” The third law says something like this: “The squares of the periods of any two planets are proportional to the cubes” of one thing or another. In order to come to any conclusion from the law, we must consider a relationship between things. I know relationships in math are a pretty average thing to consider, but they seem to permeate Feynman’s discussion of the theory of gravitation. In further reading, I also noted the relationality of causes: things only change direction or speed when a force—some outside thing—is applied to them. Now Feynman has a tendency towards calling scientific things beautiful, and usually those beautiful things are infused with simplicity. However, there’s a spot in this lecture where Feynman describes some calculation of Newton’s, which had contained a discrepancy the first time, but when recalculated “obtained beautiful agreement.” Agreement can be simple, but in this case, I think Feynman is referring to the beauty of something other than simplicity, maybe the beauty of congruence, or harmony. Either way, this beauty, as I understand it, is at the very least something only humans could comprehend, something only humans would find compelling or find at all.
Feynman has a tendency towards humanizing—whether it’s for the sake of the non-physicist reader or for the sake of his own mind is another question. On the other hand, it’s possible that I only interpret his writing as anthropomorphism based on my non-scientific background. And that’s yet another question all its own. Regardless, mid-chapter, Feynman explains how the moon “falls” around the earth by giving a terrestrial example, namely, of shooting bullets and throwing balls. While this example isn’t human, per se, it’s certainly more intuitive than trying to understand something we’ve never experienced, like how the moon falls. Obviously, including examples such as the moon falling and applying more human characteristics to scientific features makes it all easier to understand; we comprehend things more easily when they’re like us.
However, towards the end of Feynman’s chapter I had to stop myself from thinking so anthropocentrically, specifically, when Feynman says that “if a law does not work even in one place where it ought to, it is just wrong.” Earlier in the chapter, I had read that according to Kepler’s law, the further planets are from each other, the weaker the forces between them are, and I wondered how that implication could be applied to human relationships. If humans are far from each other, do the bonds between them weaken? I continued without pondering this too much, ideally in order to get back to what Feynman’s point really was. So when I reached Feynman’s comment on the wrongness of inapplicable laws, I began to wonder what this implied for the usefulness of humans. There aren’t any: “this—doesn’t—mean—anything / for human interaction,” my note says. The science of physics alone can’t tell us anything about human interaction because it’s just not about human interaction. We can apply humanity to science in order to understand it more, but we shouldn’t treat science as if it were human, as something that’s malleable depending on upbringing and situation and companions, and we shouldn’t treat humans as if they were science, straightforward and logical and systematic.
So while I love Feynman for what I perceive to be his anthropomorphism of physics, I also recognize that the approach has its problems. At some point, the reader who’s too into humanizing the content can be carried a little too far away in her search for implications, a little too far away from the science itself. The theory of gravitation obviously has significantly more implications for the universe as a whole than for relationships between measly humans, but all those implications can be lost in a reader’s ocean of anthropomorphism.