Monday, January 14, 2008

Who is Jon Richfield?

I like reading New Scientist. It helps me convince myself that I have at least some grasp of modern technology and modern scientific thinking. OK, so I skip past all the physics and cosmology articles, and focus on the social sciences (or “wet science” as it was called back when I did my degree). But my favourite bit is The Last Word, the bit at the back where people ask bizarre questions, and I always jump straight to there.

One name pops up again and again: Jon Richfield, of Somerset West, South Africa. Doesn’t matter what the question is, there’s a good chance he’ll have a bash at an answer. For the last seven years, I’ve had a mental image of Richfield as a retired scientist of some form, who has nothing to do but gaze out at the veldt, dreaming of his glory days. Then along comes New Sci each week, and suddenly, his life has purpose. There’s a question that nobody seems to know an answer to. So, by careful ferreting out, diligent research, and lateral and logical thinking, he comes up with a plausible answer. While the rest of us spend maybe a few seconds thinking, hmm, that’s a good question, Richfield devotes fifty hours to the problem. Which makes him, IMHO, a real scientist.

I’ve always wished that New Sci would do an interview with him. The breadth of his knowledge is staggering, and I’ve often wondered what he’s really like.

It turns out my mental image isn’t so far from the truth. A quick Googling tells us that he’s a retired computer scientist, living in a retirement complex, spending his days on "anything to do with ideas, especially living things, and with reading and writing".

A true polymath for the 21st century, I salute you!


Anonymous said...

A quick word from someone privileged to have Jon as a father:

He is intellectually omnivorous, modest, generous and meritocratic. Being right beats being wrong, but being wrong is no shame, provided one accept that one is wrong. Dogmatic adherence to demonstrably flawed views doesn't impress him much, but learning from errors does. All fields of study can be interesting, if tackled with the goal of comprehension, rather than mere rote memorisation. Good ideas can come from anyone - sometimes surprising angles - but neither gallant amateurism nor sober professionalism merit immunity to question.

Jon will read nearly anything once, and many things more than once, but few things are picked up as often as reference volumes. Reference volumes don't offer finished facts nearly so much as clues for the analysis of puzzles.

As for the veldt, he will sometimes gaze at it, but he's much more likely to go walking in it, admiring the wildlife and the plants which he comes across. He might not identify a particular plant or insect directly, but even its identity is a puzzle worth considering, trying to place a flower in its genus, or species, or failing that its order and so on.

It should be mentioned that Jon is not an ivory tower theorist, but essentially a practical man. The son and father of engineers, he admires and encourages achievements, and while he enjoys mathematics and other pursuits of pure thought (hence his attraction to computer science), he has a whole host of solutions to problems stored away.

I believe that anyone can learn from his virtues, the chief of which is an open (but critical) mind, followed closely by an intellectual playfulness. Read those articles on physics and cosmology and so on. If they don't make sense to you, try to find someone who can explain them. Your world will be larger for it. Explain them again to the next puzzled reader you come across; this is the intellectual generosity which marks the insight of those who realise that they do not become foolish by giving knowledge away.

anaglyph said...

I salute you for taking the time to find out about Jon Richfield (this page ranks #1 on a qualified search for "Jon Richfield" in case no-one has ever pointed that out to you).

I landed here after a friend read yet another Richfield answer in The Last Word and asked me "How He knows So Much". What is even more wonderful is that one of his family has given a personal insight into a man who we all knew was just like that!.


Pil said...

A while ago I emailed New Scientist Letters to the Editor and asked if they could interview Jon Richfield for all the readers who want to know more about him.

I feared he was South Africa's answer to The Surgeon of Crowthorne, so I'm very glad to read his son's post!

Maybe one day we'll get our interview!

Matt "The Mongoose" Kelland said...

I suspect Jon has quite a little fan club, if only he knew it. Mind you, it's so exclusive that even the people who are in it don't generally know it exists.

Richard said...

The fan club does indeed exist, and it even has an incarnation on Facebook:

If you've got as far as reading this comment, presumably after searching for more information about him, I encourage you to join.

Captain PhingerSpex said...

You'll be pleased to note on page 50 of New Scientist 9 October 2010, there is an interview with Jon Richfield. Hurrah!

Matt Kelland said...

Thanks - I'll check that out.