One day I'll be convinced there's a certain type of symmetry that everybody believes in, the next day I'll try to figure out the consequences if it's not, and everybody's crazy but me. But the thing that's unusual about good scientists is that while they're doing whatever they're doing, they're not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think "maybe it's so" and act on that, al lthe time knowing it's only "maybe." Many people find that difficult; they think it means detachment or coldness. It's not coldness! It's a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you're temporarily convinced you'll find the answer, and somebody comes up and says, "Have you seen what they're coming up with over there?", and you look up and say "Jeez! I'm in the wrong place!" It happens all the time.
There's a tendency to pomposity in all this, to make it all deep and profound. My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza--and there was teh most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here's this great Dutch phiosopher, and we're laughing at him. It's because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of the blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza's propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world--and you can't tell which is right. Sure, people were awed because he had the courage to take on these great questions, but it doesn't do any good to have the courage to take on these great questions, but it doesn't do any good to have the courage if you can't get anywhere with the question.
Omni: Does that limit the number of people who can contribute, or even understand what's being done?
Feynman: Or else somebody will develop a way of thinking about the problems so that we can understand them more easily. Maybe they'll just teach it earlier and earlier. You know, it's not true that what is called "abstruse" math is so difficult. Take something like computer programming, and the careful logic needed for that--the kind of thinking that mama and papa would have said was only for professors. Well, now it's part of a lot of daily activities, it's a way to make a living; their children get interested and get hold of a computer and they're doing the most crazy, wonderful things!
Omni:...with ads for programming schools on every matchbook!
Feynman: Right. I don't believe in the idea that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it's no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, "What one fool can do, another can." What we've been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn't studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all fools will understand it.
Pysicists are trying to find out how nature behaves; they may talks carelessly about some "utlimate particle" because that's the way nature looks at a given moment, but... Suppose people are exploring a new continent, OK? They see water coming along the ground, they've seen that before, and they call it "rivers." So they say they're exploring to find the headwaters, they go upriver, and sure enough, there they are, it's all going very well. But lo and behold, when they get up far enough they find the whole system's different: There's a great big lake, or springs, or the rivers run in a circle. You might say, "Aha! They've failed!" but not at all! The real reason they were doing it was to explore the land. If ti turned out not to be headwaters, they might be slightly embarrassed at their carelessness in explaining themselves, but no more than that. As long as it looks like the way things are built is wheels within wheels, then you're looking for the innermost wheel--but it might not be that way, in which case you're looking for whatever the hell it is that you find!