Richard Feynman – the inconceivable nature of nature

This entire film is wonderful but I want to draw your attention to the section roughly from 34 to 40 minutes where physicist Richard Feynman explains what he calls the ‘inconceivable nature of nature’.

I found this video via Web 2.0 – Twitter, to be precise, from a tweet by Tim O’Reilly.

Tim O'Reilly

  Retwt @Werner: Listening to Feynman is like watching Magic.For those who don’t know him this  documentary is a start.


I picked up the tweet, watched the film, and as a result wrote this post. This is how information spreads and is reprocessed via the internet.

In the particular section I’d like you to watch, which runs from around 34 mins into the film, to around 40 mins,  Feynman gives a very clear and graphic explanation of the way that radio and light waves work What really struck me about his explanation is how it is resonant it is of the (much much less than his example) complexity of Web 2.0, what Clay Shirky has called ‘the mess’.  One of the objections to Web 2.0 is that it is more complex and messy than any human can cope with, but Feynman’s talk on how we separate out visual and audio signals specific to our own interests whilst simply not noticing all the other personally irrelevant data reinforces the fact that humans are able to filter and sort very large quantities of material.

But his account also makes me wonder.  Light and sound waves are, I believe, naturally occurring, whereas the media of the web (words, images, etc) are highly processed, and perhaps this is getting in the way just as over-processed food can be hard to digest. Let me try to explain my thought. Feynman’s account describes the many waves occurring in the space of a room, but I am wondering whether it might be possible, some time in the distant future, to use the internet to extend that ‘room’, or sensorium,  beyond its brick walls to the entire world, or even the universe, beyond? So that we swim in an even larger pool of information yet are still able to filter out what we need in the manner he describes here? This world would certainly not be trapped inside any kind of screen, but would more resemble what Feynman calls ‘the inconceivable nature of nature’. Most importantly, it would not be an intellectual experience, but something totally and inconceivably sensory akin to what happens when, as in Feynman’s example, we choose to tune in to a radio station. If we turn off the radio, the radio waves are still there – we’re simply not listening to them anymore. Can you imagine how it be for the internet to work like that? Wow! [And in fact this is quite close to an essay I wrote in 2005, Virtuality as Air, which is a pretty similar notion. Looks like I’m going round in circles. Oh well!]

Richard Feynman – The Last Journey Of A Genius (1988) Producer: Christopher Sykes

(warning: pls ignore his unfortunate opening sexist comment – this was 1983, I guess that’s the excuse)

British Academy Research Grant

A segment of this research, entitled Nature Metaphors in Virtual Landscapes, is funded by the British Academy and
will take place during a Visiting Scholarship to the University of
California Santa Barbara in the Department of English in 2009.

Nature Metaphors in Virtual Landscapes
Cyberspace is a virtual entity generated by the imaginations of the
people who use it, but these imaginings in turn arise from their
knowledge and experience of real locations.  Writing about an entirely
different imaginative space, Shangri-La, Peter Bishop suggests that
“Places are produced by a dialogue between cultural fantasy-making and
geographical landscape’[1] and Richard Mabey writes that ‘We constantly
refer back to the natural world to try and discover who we are.’[2] The Wild Surmise
will map the connections between the landscapes of cyberspace and their
origins in the personal geographies of those who create and imagine
them. According to Lakoff and Johnson ‘new metaphors have the power to
create a new reality’ and therefore play ‘a very significant role in
determining what is real for us’[3]. This is powerfully demonstrated in
the metaphors which have arisen around the virtual terrain of the
internet, commonly known as cyberspace. The term was coined by William
Gibson in 1984 in his science fiction novel Neuromancer, and its
emphasis on the connections between online culture and the urban
environment has had a profound influence on the popular imagination.
However, an examination of the language used by those who designed the
internet and those who now inhabit it reveals a contradiction.

The language and concepts adopted by many internet users exhibit
their strong sense of the online world as a natural landscape, and
rather than imagining themselves in a slick inner-city environment they
often display an affinity with notions of exploration, homesteading and
cultivation. They make frequent references to the body, as if
virtuality has prompted them to remember, rather than forget, their
earthly existence. Indeed, since its earliest beginnings computers and
cyberspace have been saturated with images of the natural world:
fields, strings, webs, streams, rivers, trails, paths, torrents, and
islands. Then the flora – apples, apricots, trees, roots, branches, and
the fauna – spiders, viruses, worms, pythons, lynxes, gophers, plus the
ubiquitous bug and mouse. My preliminary research has revealed
interpretations of the internet as a solar system, a jungle, a desert,
a swamp, an archipelago, a subterranean world, an estuary or, to quote
novelist Bruce Sterling, a ‘bubbling primal soup full of worms and
viruses.’ The popular geography of online culture is an extremely
important issue because although we have never encountered virtual
space before it is already challenging much that until now has been
taken as given. Today we face the growth of global collective
intelligence with its concomitant threats and opportunities such as the
ability to communicate across cultures and geographical boundaries, and
the capacity for vast information storage. It is vital that we
understand the cultural construction of virtual space.

The Wild Surmise will examine this phenomenon, including the impact
of the international spread of cyberspace upon the ways in which it is
conceptualised and imagined. Preliminary desk research (Barbrook,
Curtis, Davis, Laurel, Markoff) has shown that there is a great deal of
evidence for the widespread use of nature metaphors in the design both
of early computer interfaces and of the internet itself, and that many
of those influences originated in Silicon Valley and Southern
California. Indeed, the World Wide Web, invented by Englishman Tim
Berners-Lee working at CERN in Switzerland, was informed by a research
visit he made to Palo Alto and San Francisco in 1992. The same year,
the term ‘surfing the net’ was originated in Cupertino by journalist
Jean Polly Armour who has been commissioned by the Wilson Library
Bulletin to write an article explaining the internet and was searching
for a suitable metaphor. In 1990, the text-based virtual world
LambdaMOO was created at Xerox PARC, Palo Alto, and designed by
computer programmer Pavel Curtis as a replica of his own house and
garden. Today, many games and virtual worlds, such as Second Life, are
designed and built in California, and their default landscapes still
bear an uncanny resemblance to the Mojave Desert. It is inevitable that
the design of these new virtual geographies will echo the local
landscapes encountered by those who work in them. The section of my
research traces the history of these influences in California.

Research Objectives

  1. Collect personal accounts of the early development of nature-related language and concepts pertaining to the internet
  2. Visit significant locations where ideas were initiated and
    developed e.g. corporate and university campuses, private homes,
    natural landscapes.
  3. Present results and gather peer feedback.

[1] Bishop, P. (1989) The Myth of Shangri-La, London: Athlone Press Bishop p.9
[2] Mabey, R. (2006) Nature Cure, London: Pimlico p.19
[3] Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press p.8

Background Reading

Here is some of the background reading I’ve been doing.  I’ll be adding more from my notes, and further suggestions are very welcome.

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[last updated July 2007]

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