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Let Me Introduce You to Dr Richard P Feynman, Nobel Laureate and all around good guy.
Richard Feynman had a remarkable life. Amongst other things, he worked on the atomic bomb, he shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965. Now, can anyone remember anything about his life? His life was also touched by tragedy - his first wife, Arlene, died of Tuberculosis in Albuquerque whilst Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project (as an aside - when he heard from the hospital that she was near the end, he borrowed a car - from Klaus Fuchs. The spy [of course, Feynman didn't know that at the time]).
The Book - Structure
On the face of it, "What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?" is similar to "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman." But that's only on the surface.
Ralph Leighton (you may remember that he's the chap that collected the stories in Surely You're Joking from Feynman during bongo drumming sessions) explains in the Preface: "First, although the central character in this book is the same as before, the 'adventures of a curious character' here are different: some are light and some tragic, but most of the time Mr Feynman is surely NOT joking - although it's often hard to tell)."
Leighton goes on to explain that the stories in this book are more loosely arranged - less obviously connected to each other than they were in Surely You're Joking. This is for a couple of reasons. One is that Feynman found talking about Arlene difficult; so the story of Arlene (from which the title was taken) was told over a much longer period of time - around ten years. The other stories in the first section are more or less unrelated, and not necessarily chronological. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The book is split into two long sections and one short one. The first section ("A Curious Character") contains the title 'story' (Feynman talking about Arlene). Before the chapter 'What Do YOU Care...' there is a description of how Feynman's father shaped and influenced Richard's love of science - this is adapted from "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" - a BBC program (which I've never seen, dammit). There are then other stories that show some more how Feynman thinks.
At the end of the first section, are some letters that Feynman wrote to his family and friends, letters that Freeman Dyson wrote which mentioned Feynman, and finally, a letter Henry Bethe wrote to Gweneth (Feynman's widow) after Feynman's death. There are also photographs and drawings (remember, I told you that he drew).
The second section, entitled "Mr Feynman Goes to Washington: Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster" details...well, just that, and it takes up more than half the book. Feynman was on the presidential commission (headed by William Rogers) investigating the destruction of Challenger. I will go into more detail on this section shortly (or 'longly', knowing me...)
Finally, there is a very short Epilogue, which is the text of a public address given at the 1955 autumn meeting of the National Academy of Sciences. I know that, because a handy footnote at the beginning tells me so.
Section 1 - A Curious Character
The first part of the book is entertaining in places, sad in others. It does give useful insight into Feynman's mind...but it is not as coherently put together, nor is it as surprising as Surely You're Joking - remember, Surely You're Joking revealed that amongst Feynman's other gifts, he indulged in safecracking.
Having said that, reading more about the relationship Richard and Arlene had is revealing and fascinating - remember, this was wartime - Richard was engaged in top secret research and development, and Arlene was in hospital suffering from Tuberculosis. So a good deal of their relationship was not only long distance, but also subject to censors.
Feynman visited Arlene each weekend. She would clearly get bored during the week, so would come up with various...plans and schemes...sort of.
Now, early on in their relationship, before Arlene got sick (and before they got married - as another aside, they couldn't marry until after Feynman had finished graduate school - he'd would lose his scholarship to Princeton if he married), Feynman and Arlene were discussing 'white lies'. As a scientist, Feynman detested white lies, proclaiming 'what do YOU care what other people think?' Those words were to haunt him...
Arlene would send Richard little gifts - for example, pencils inscribed in big, gold letters RICHARD DARLING, I LOVE YOU, PUTSY (Putsy being Richard's pet name for Arlene). This embarrassed Feynman - he was a young physicist mingling with big names - so he tried to carve the names out with a pocketknife. She got wind of this, and wrote, asking "What do YOU care what other people think". You get the idea.
The Arlene story is poignant and amusing in places, but there are other stories as well. One of my personal favourites is "Who the Hell is Herman?" It seems Feynman receives a phone call from a friend, telling him that Herman has died. Feynman says "'Oh?' - trying to be quiet and serious so I could get more information, but thinking to myself 'Who the hell is Herman?'" To top it off, he's asked to be a pallbearer. He phones the funeral home - gets a last name for dear, departed Herman, but still, no light bulbs. He takes his place as pallbearer, and views the body...nope - doesn't ring any bells. He explains he never did have any idea who the hell was Herman.
There is, however, a postscript to this story - many years later, he speaks to the friend who had asked him to be a pallbearer in the first place. It seems, what MAY have happened is that she'd met Herman just after Feynman had left Los Alamos - that perhaps she was so friendly with both Herman and Richard, that she assumed they must have known each other - that they must have been contemporary. "So," as Feynman says, "she was the one who had made the mistake, not me (which is usually the case). Or was she just being polite?"
The section concludes, as mentioned earlier, with letters and pictures (both photos and drawings).
Section 2 - Mr Feynman Goes To Washington
If section one was the potatoes, this is the meat of the book - and fascinating and tasty it is. You will probably remember what happened on 28 January 1986. Maybe you even saw it on television. On an unusually cold morning in Florida, Space Shuttle Challenger took off. Seconds later, it blew up, killing all on board, including Christa McAuliffe, the 'teacher in space.'
This section is fascinating on many levels - you have the actual investigation and explanation of what went wrong, complete with diagrams; you have the methods and thought processes of Feynman; and finally you have Appendix F, which Feynman wrote for inclusion in the final report.
What Went Wrong - mechanically
OK, let's look at the nitty gritty first - what DID cause the shuttle to blow up? I don't think I can explain this as well as Feynman, but I'll try.
We need to look at the solid-fuel rocket boosters - those are those rocket things that flank the shuttle. These are what actually get the thing into space, and they are one-use only. They are made by Morton Thiokol in Utah. There are various joints on the boosters - permanent 'factory joints' (sealed at Morton Thiokol) and 'field joints', which are sealed before each flight at (what was then called) the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida.
We need to concentrate here on the field joints, and specifically the rubber O-rings, which are meant to form a seal. To explain the function of the O-rings, let's refer to Dr Feynman: "...they're not used like normal O-rings are. In ordinary circumstances, such as sealing oil in the motor of an automobile, there are sliding parts and rotating shafts, but the gaps are always the same. An O-ring just sits there, in a fixed position. But in the case of the shuttle, the gap EXPANDS as the pressure builds up in the rocket. And to maintain the seal, the rubber has to expand FAST enough to close the gap...[which] opens in a fraction of a second."
Still with me? So the rubber has to be RESILANT and flexible. When it isn't, there is leakage of hot gasses from behind the O-ring. This was a known problem, and the engineers did try to create make-shift fixes.
Now, what happens to rubber when it's cold? I'll tell you - it loses flexibility and becomes rigid. Remember, the day of the disaster was unusually cold, especially for Florida (around 29 F). So, the rubber didn't expand, a seal wasn't created, which caused leakage...and...boom.
So that was the mechanical problem. But what makes this book so fascinating is Feynman's method of discovering the problems (not just mechanical, but methodical), and of revealing what he knows.
How Feynman Found Out
By now, you should all know that Feynman was unconventional in approach. He was a man of intense scruples, distained authority (at least, had no time for authority for its own sake), and always wanted to take the simplest approach possible. So serving on a committee was always going to be interesting.
When Feynman was asked to join the commission, he really didn't want to do it. However, friends explained to him how important this was, and his wife gave him the clincher argument. When he said that anyone could do it, that he didn't need to or want to, Gweneth said, "'If you don't do it, there will be twelve people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be eleven people - all in a group, going around from place to place together - while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things...there isn't anyone who can do that like you can.' Being very immodest, I believed her."
He concludes the chapterette with the statement, "I'm gonna commit suicide for six months."
Anyway, Feynman DID run around all over the place. He wanted to talk not to management (of NASA and Morton Thiokol), but to the engineers - to the guys who designed the things. Before he even went to Washington, he had a high speed briefing with some folks from JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena, California). When he got to Washington, he went his own way, and spoke to the engineers. And he discovered all SORTS of things - worrying things about safety, about procedures that the management had imposed.
Let's take just one example (otherwise, again, I may as well buy you the book!) One of the 'safety' checks is for the rockets, which, if you remember, have fallen into the sea after lift-off. They are recovered and sent to Utah. There, they are checked to ensure they are still round - remember what happens if there are any gaps. So, Feynman gets from NASA the numbers that show how 'out of round' the sections can get. However, NASA decides whether or not the section is round by taking three diameters, one every 60 degrees. If they are all the same, NASA declares the booster sections round. But that's not necessarily so. There's a little picture of this in the book, but as I can't include pictures, I'll try to explain. Or perhaps I'll let Feynman explain: "...you can make a figure something like a triangle with rounded corners, in which three diameters, 60 degrees apart, have the same length." In fact, as Feynman points out, no amount of diameters would prove the shape is round - it could be squashed between diameters, whether you're measuring three, six, 10 or a hundred. It just ain't so!
So that's how Feynman finds things out. He THINKS, and he talks to the people that have actually worked on each part. Because management tell him what they wish him to hear. Let's take an example. Feynman is trying to work out whether there is a severe lack of communication between management and engineers - this was during the investigation of the shuttle's engines (which were not implicated in the crash). He hands out bits of paper around the table (there were both management and employees around this table). He asks each person to write down the answer to the following question, "what do you think is the probability that a flight would be uncompleted due to a failure in this engine?" One engineer gives it as 1 in 200, another with the same figure, another with 1 in 300. The manager, however, states it's 1 in 100,000! Feynman read a full report by this manager, and found it was weasel words and meaningless. And it took a guy to ask the right questions of the right people to find this out.
How Feynman Told Everyone What He Found Out
This is classic. I'm sorry this is getting so long...but this is truly classic.
Remember that I told you what happens to the O-rings when they are cold? They don't bounce back. Again, it was 29 F on the day of the launch. So, in a press conference/open meeting, Feynman gets himself a model of the field joint. He has also acquired (from a local hardware store), a tiny C-clamp and a pair of pliers.
The meeting commences - Feynman asks for a glass of ice water. Finally, it comes. Using the pliers, he removes the O-ring from the field joint. The O-ring goes in the C-clamp, and the whole thing goes in the glass of ice water. He then turns his microphone on.
He removes the clamp from the water, and loosens it as he is talking: "I discovered that when you undo the clamp, the rubber doesn't spring back. In other words, for more than a few seconds, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees. I believe that has some significance for our problem."
Wouldn't you have loved to have been there?
And I haven't even told you about his wrangles with his expenses, and the hotel, and the Appendix...but you'll have to read the book!
Section 3 - The Value of Science
This is a very short section - yet again, very important. Yet another speech Feynman gave - much along similar lines of the talks discussed in The Meaning Of It All. This one, as you may remember from the beginning of this now very long essay, comes from a public address given at the 1955 autumn meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.
As in the Danz lectures, he discusses the value of doubt and uncertainty (in fact, he clearly used this lecture as reference when writing the later ones). He also talks about the joy of science - the joy of finding things out and understanding the world around us. Again, please forgive the quoting:
"...The scientific article may say, 'the radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.' Now what does that mean?
It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat - and also in mine, and yours - is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They can now remember what was going on in my mind a year ago - a mind which has long ago been replaced."
See the joy, the excitement he brings to science - the excitement he clearly feels - the beauty he clearly recognises. Isn't it cool that we can remember things, even though the actual atoms; the actual matter is not the same as it was?
The whole talk is like that - a celebration of the beauty of finding things out. He tells us what is the Value of Science.
Opinion and Overview
Well, what can I say? Another fascinating, hugely enjoyable read from Mr Feynman - who was surely not joking, this time. Yet he's still curious - in both senses of that phrase. He inspires curiosity, and was himself intensely curious.
Mr Feynman reminds us to think - and reminds us how to think, in a way. Reading about Herman, about his wife and about the shuttle is hugely interesting and enjoyable in itself, just as anecdotes. But more than that, I have learned a great deal reading this book, and the two I have already reviewed.
Yes - buy this book (Amazon have it at £7.01 new. It contains a grand total of 256 pages). Buy other books by Dr Feynman. Learn. Learn lots.
What HAVE we Learned?
On 1 February 2003, Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board. Many of the issues Feynman highlighted once again reared their ugly heads. The cause of the accident seems to be a bit of foam that fell off during liftoff. The foam hit the heat shielding on the underside of the shuttle, damaging the heat tiles. The thing is, bits have fallen off the shuttle every time. But because it had never caused a catastrophic failure before, it was simply assumed it would never do so. It's Russian Roulette all over again.
The Columbia mission, like the Challenger, was a historic one - for the first time in ages, it carried real scientific experiments. It carried the first Israeli in space. It was an optimistic and exciting mission for the shuttle. And now it's gone.
There are those calling for the cessation of the manned space programme. There are those who say that it is inherently too dangerous.
I fervently hope that this does not presage the end of the adventure and progress that are the hallmarks of the manned space programme. Please don't let the naysayers frighten us into a false safety. For everything is dangerous, and many of the activities that are the riskiest are also the most important, for all of us.
How much do YOU care what other people think?
The Last Word from Richard P Feynman
"It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations."
Feynman died in 1988 after a long battle with cancer, just two weeks after teaching his last class. Although I never met him, he is sorely missed.
This two-part profile of the late Nobel Prize-winning scientist reveals the influence of his father and his first wife on his life and discusses his role in the investigation of the Challenger explosion.