Welcome to the 14th post in our Journey in Dialog. Richard Feynman pioneered quantum electrodynamics (QED). He won a share of a Nobel Prize, and his research and explanations were critical in helping to understand the cause of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Albert Einstein attended Feynman’s first talk as a graduate student, and Bill Gates was so inspired by his pedagogy that he called him “the greatest teacher I never had.”

Feynman told of his experience with a committee of high-powered fellow scientists.   “I would sit in because I understood the theory of how our process of separating isotopes worked, and so they’d ask me questions and talk about it. In these discussions one man would make a point. Then Compton, for example, would explain a different point of view. He would say it should be this way, and he was perfectly right. Another guy would say, well, maybe, but there’s this other possibility we have to consider against it.

“So everybody is disagreeing, all around the table. I am surprised and disturbed that Compton doesn’t repeat and emphasize his point. Finally at the end, Tolman, who’s the chairman, would say, ‘Well, having heard all these arguments, I guess it’s true that Compton’s argument is the best of all, and now we have to go ahead.’

“It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, while remembering what the other fella said, so that, at the end, the decision is made as to which idea was the best–summing it all up–without having to say it three times. These were very great men indeed.”

Michael Polanyi was born in Budapest. He earned doctoral degrees in medicine and physical science. Polanyi immigrated to Britain and became Professor of Physical Chemistry and later Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester.

Central to Polanyi’s thinking was the belief that acts of discovery are charged with strong personal feelings and commitments. As M.K. Smith put it, “Polanyi’s argument was that the informed guesses, hunches and imaginings that are part of exploratory acts are motivated by what he describes as ‘passions’. They might well be aimed at discovering ‘truth’, but they are not necessarily in a form that can be stated in propositional or formal terms.”

Polanyi said, We can know more than we can tell.” He termed this pre-logical phase of knowing as ‘tacit knowledge’.  The image of an iceberg suggests that our explicit knowledge is the tip, but implicit is the larger mass that requires special means of exploration. Polanyi placed a strong emphasis on dialog within an open community as a means to surface strongly held opinions and understandings as well as resistance to changing them. Even scientific positions must be viewed as provisional in anticipation of continuing discoveries.

What can we learn about dialog from these two scientists?

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