Saturday, 16 February 2008

The pleasure of finding things out in Venezuela I

Here you will find one of the guys I admire the most. His name was Richard Feynman. He was one of the greatest physicists of the XX Century. He was a theoretical physicist and a practical inventor as well, apart from a not so bad hobby bongo drummer. He was one of those guys who transform the world for good. He gave us new ideas, new insights on many things. He also contributed to making his country more prosperous by the thinking he generated and the people he inspired. He was infinitely curious, and very disrespectful. Here is one of his quotations:

"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."

Not that the guy hated learning languages. He spoke Portuguese and tried a bit Japanese. Definitely: knowing names is one thing and knowing something is another matter. We need in Venezuela people who want to know how things work out and then make them do so. That is much more important than titles or honours. We need doers. We need people who transform the country by being inventive. What conditions do we have for that?

Feynman told about how he started to learn calculus as a young boy. He had heard calculus was a big thing and he decided to go to the public library and borrow a book on that subject. He decided to borrow a book called Calculus for the Practical Man. When the librarian, puzzled, asked him what he was going to do with that book, Feynman replied: "It is for my dad". It was a lie. He just did not bother to explain why he, a young boy, would or could learn calculus.

When I read about that in Feynman's book Sure you must be Joking, Mr Feynman, and later saw this video, I thought immediately: and what would have happened in Venezuela?

The answer most likely would have been: such a boy would have had a much bigger difficulty because he would not have been able to borrow a book in the first place.

Do you know how many real public libraries my city, with over 1000000 people, has? It has one "big" library and a handful of very small ones. You can't hardly borrow books even from the big one and forget about getting books on mathematics or on business making.

Miguel Pena, the poorest area of my city and the one with half of its population has only one of the small "public libraries" from which you cannot expect to get many books and much less books of this kind.

Venezuelans read very little. The huge majority, more than in other places, prefer self-help books and cheap novels only. Sure, there should be place for that as well, but: can we offer a better environment to Venezuelan children so that we get sometime our Edisons and Jeffersons and Feynmans?

Public libraries are just a tiny detail, but it is something where the government could make big contributions. Do you know how many public libraries with lots of interesting books for children could be bought for the same amount of money Chávez is using to buy more Russian submarines? How many could be bought by part of the salary of some of the best paid deputies in the world, the venezuelan deputies?

There are a lot of other missing things needed to produce children like this. Do you know how many science prizes could we offer to curious pupils in poor schools if we were taxing a little bit more the huge amounts of Scottish whiskey Venezuela is importing? And all the other luxuries Venezuelans are so fond of? Do you know how much we could improve Venezuelan schools if people who were able to study and prosper would contribute more to them? Do you know what could happen if the Venezuelan government decided to put in practice a real education programme? Do you know how much we could profit if we all started to discuss about how to awaken the desire of Venezuelans to find things out, get to know how everything works, how we can make one or the other thing ourselves and not just expect to get some petrodollars to buy it from abroad?

I know, I have written here about many issues. Too many, perhaps. Still, I hope you get the idea: we need to ask ourselves what can we do to make Venezuela less mediocre and more competitive? Complaining about our history is not going to take us further. We need to find things out.


  1. No different than the US. Its not really libraries, although we could all use more, its in the explanation and encouragement of dynamic thinking. Looking beyond the obvious sparks curiosity and invention.

    Feynman isn't the way he is because of books ... it was his father's manner of teaching. He made what he was telling his son, real.

  2. This isn't to say there should not be more books for the curious mind. Well stocked libraries are definitely a must.

  3. Hi Kepler, The videos of Feynman were great, thanks for posting about him... I love how he get terrible excited talking about physics...

    "I'm actively irresponsible I tell everybody. I don't do anything."

    Exactly, so he can work an not be bothered! Genius!!!!!

    You know, I am thinking about the Venezuelan music program of Maestro Abreu... all you need is a good teacher, maybe the parents, as in the case of Feynman-his dad- to open your eyes to the world, that person who will spark your curiosity, who make you understand things out of any book and apply it to the real world... those who make you wonder about how awesome is the world we live in.

    All I can say is that they are many Venezuelans who can fulfill those teaching credentials... that human capital is the important thing.

    Feynman reminds me the teacher who finally made me understand Calculus, he made it so easy... I loved the subject after taking his class... it was so much fun... and he absolutely related everything to nature an common things... just like Feynman... maybe he was influenced by him, who knows...

    I loved it when he says that there's no really a good way to teaching but to throw so many different styles so he won't bother the same guy everytime, that was hilarious...

  4. Excellent post! One I can totally agree with!;)

  5. Bosque,

    I agree number 1 is parents (not only father). Parents can and should be the greatest promoters of a child's potentials. There are many other factors as well: the opportunities they all have, schools, teachers, security and so on. Still, I wanted to start by one issue I have found particularly lacking in Venezuela and go from there to touch other areas. In fact, I wanted to call this post finding things out 1.

    In the civil parish Miguel Pena in Valencia there are half a million inhabitants. There is a tiny library no one visits and apart from that pupils can go to Valencia's central library, which is where all the rest go.
    The Chavez government says universities have to double the amount of people they accept but it does not take into account it has to do something to increase the standard of our public schools.
    They shove the problem to universities. The problem should be tackled early on.
    Quality in public schools has only decreased in the last 9 years.

  6. Dear Kepler ,he speaks of inertia :

    Innate force of matter is a power of resisting, by which every body, as much as in it lies, endeavors to preserve in its present state, whether it be of rest, or of moving uniformly forward in a right line.

    In terms of the human mind and spirit: an over adjustment ,a passion for comfort ,laziness,a lack of motivation towards action, ACCIDIA.Deeper than that is the inaction of the spirit or a deafening, a resistance to change, and a loss of interiority, lack of imagination and it's emotional consequences..

    When emotion is introduced to the learning process it can give a little SHOCK that is needed to awaken a person to be in touch with HIS OWN inner voices so as to inspire the person to love being in touch with his own inner voices.
    It is like a transmission.An inspired teacher or parent can awaken others to their own inner passion and curiosity.Not for the NAMES of things and rote learning but to the essence and power of the aliveness, beauty and wonder of life.
    In essence we can wrap our minds about things, because in essence ideas are simple.When we clutter them up they become confusing and un -learnable.
    When we find that we can wrap our minds around something it gives us hope, and with hope starts MORE higher emotion which infuses us with the passion to keep on learning.
    True teaching makes things simple, yet deep connected, alive, and full of wonder.

    A transmission??? yes....a passing of life and knowledge from one human to another: I forgot who wrote the below lovely poem:

    In dreams they come with out-stretched
    hands the color of malachite
    giving, magnetizing
    palms formed by leaf and wind,
    torrential waters--
    As they pass to me the white lotus bud
    grown up from mud, its stainless bloom

    thanks Kepler for this Super Post


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