Feyman’s Nobel Banquet Speech

 Posted by on 19 July 2009 at 11:01 pm  Ethics, Science
Jul 192009

My earlier post on physicist Richard Feynman (“Feynman on Honors“) spawned an intense discussion on whether Feynman’s stated disdain for what he called “honors” indicated a rejection of justice.

In light of that, I’d like to post the text of his Nobel Banquet Speech delivered in Stockholm on December 10, 1965, followed by a few of my own comments.

Here is what he said:

Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen.

The work I have done has, already, been adequately rewarded and recognized.

Imagination reaches out repeatedly trying to achieve some higher level of understanding, until suddenly I find myself momentarily alone before one new corner of nature’s pattern of beauty and true majesty revealed. That was my reward.

Then, having fashioned tools to make access easier to the new level, I see these tools used by other men straining their imaginations against further mysteries beyond. There, are my votes of recognition.

Then comes the prize, and a deluge of messages. Reports; of fathers turning excitedly with newspapers in hand to wives; of daughters running up and down the apartment house ringing neighbor’s doorbells with news; victorious cries of “I told you so” by those having no technical knowledge – their successful prediction being based on faith alone; from friends, from relatives, from students, from former teachers, from scientific colleagues, from total strangers; formal commendations, silly jokes, parties, presents; a multitude of messages in a multitude of forms.

But, in each I saw the same two common elements. I saw in each, joy; and I saw affection (you see, whatever modesty I may have had has been completely swept away in recent days).

The prize was a signal to permit them to express, and me to learn about, their feelings. Each joy, though transient thrill, repeated in so many places amounts to a considerable sum of human happiness. And, each note of affection released thus one upon another has permitted me to realize a depth of love for my friends and acquaintances, which I had never felt so poignantly before.

For this, I thank Alfred Nobel and the many who worked so hard to carry out his wishes in this particular way.

And so, you Swedish people, with your honors, and your trumpets, and your king – forgive me. For I understand at last – such things provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people they can generate good feeling, even love, among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you…

I found the following aspects of his remarks especially noteworthy:

1) For him, his achievement was its own reward.

As a scientist, his primary orientation was towards reality and existence, as opposed to a second-hander’s orientation towards other people. He eloquently noted the joy a brilliant scientist feels when, “…suddenly I find myself momentarily alone before one new corner of nature’s pattern of beauty and true majesty revealed”.

In that moment of achievement, it’s him “alone” with nature.

2) He acknowledged and was justly appreciative of the recognition he received from his peers in the form of having his work “used by other men straining their imaginations against further mysteries beyond”.

3) He recognized his winning the Nobel Prize served as a focal point by which others who might not understand much about physics could still offer their own appreciation and praise of his work. Although his primary motivation as a physicist was to unlock the secrets of nature, rather than to garner praise from others, he was genuinely appreciative of the praise he received from “friends and acquaintances”.

And he returned their praise with a “depth of love” which he “had never felt so poignantly before”.

In my experience, this sort of benevolence towards one’s fellow man is possible only to those who are independent in a very deep way — i.e., not primarily trying to seek the approval (or avoid the disapproval) of others.

4) He recognized that “honors” awarded by a “wise and peaceful people” were commendable. Hence, I think he had an implicit understanding of what Objectivists mean by “justice”.

(I do acknowledge that his quote in the earlier post could be interpreted to indicate that he did not believe that “honors” were a form of justice.)

5) I’m not an expert on the biography or psychology of Richard Feynman, although I have read some of his books.

But my understanding of his attitude towards his work was that he was incredibly first-handed.

In that way, he was similar to Hank Rearden, as portrayed by Rand in Part 1, Chapter 8 of Atlas Shrugged (“The John Galt Line”) as follows:

…[Rearden] was watching the performance of track and train with an expert’s intensity of professional interest; his bearing suggested that he would kick aside, as irrelevant, any thought such as “They like it,” when the thought ringing in his mind was “It works!”

Of course, Rand was not saying that all thoughts such as “They like it” are “irrelevant”. After all, one of the key themes of Atlas Shrugged was the importance of granting approval and moral sanction to those who deserve it (and withdrawing it from those who do not deserve it).

But it’s also clear from Rand’s portrayals of Howard Roark or Hank Rearden, that an independent first-handed thinker would find others’ praise of his work (“They like it”) to be irrelevant to the primary reward that the creator gains from his achievement — namely the work itself. This issue is separate from the fact that justice is a virtue and that in a healthy society, good men will receive justly-earned praise for their achievements.

My own take on Feynman was that because he was so extremely first-handed in his attitude towards his work, he viewed others’ praise of his work as extremely secondary to the primary reward he gained from the work itself, which may have caused him to regard such praise as “unreal”, just as Hank Rearden regarded others’ approval of Rearden Metal as “irrelevant” to the primary reward of knowing that “it worked”.

But Feynman was clearly still appreciative and thankful for the praise that he did receive when it came from those whom he esteemed. And in his Nobel Banquet speech, he expressed that gratitude with great warmth and benevolence.

To summarize: I found Feynman’s first-handed attitude towards his work to be a rare and admirable trait. And given the fuller context provided by his Nobel Banquet Speech, I believe he also had at least an implicit appreciation for the Objectivist virtue of justice.

Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha