kottke.org posts about Richard Feynman

The faces of the Manhattan ProjectSep 26 2014

Alex Wellerstein took all of the badge photos of the people who worked on the atomic bomb project during World War II at Los Alamos and made a huge image out of them.

Faces Of Project Y

I just finished reading Genius, James Gleick's excellent biography of Richard Feynman. Here's Feynman (left) and his friend Klaus Fuchs, whose car he used to borrow on the weekends to visit his ailing wife in Albuquerque.

Feynman Fuchs

After the war, Fuchs was revealed to be a Soviet spy. If you're at all interested in the Manhattan Project and the espionage surrounding it and somehow have not read Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun, do so now...they are two of my all-time favorite books. (via greg.org)

Scientific answers for creationistsFeb 06 2014

The other day, Bill Nye debated Ken Ham about evolution and creationism. At the event, Matt Stopera asked self-identifying creationists to write question/notes to those who "believe" in evolution. Here's one:

Creation is amazing

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy responded to each of the 22 notes/questions from the creationists. Here's his answer to the comment above:

I agree; it is amazing! I've written about this many times. But we know that complexity can arise naturally through the laws of physics. It doesn't take very complex rules to create huge diversity. Look at poker; a simple set of rules creates a game that has so many combinations it's essentially infinite to human experience. We can figure out the rules of nature by studying the way processes follow them, and deduce what's going on behind the scenes. And whenever we do, we see science.

This makes me think of Richard Feynman's ode to the scientific beauty of a flower:

I have a friend who's an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say "look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. Then he says "I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing," and I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is ... I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there's also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

Richard Feynman explains rubber bandsSep 24 2013

I had no idea that's how rubber bands worked. Once again, Feynman takes something that seems pretty simple and makes it both simpler and vividly complex.

(via @stevenstrogatz)

The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTMLSep 13 2013

Volume 1 of The Feynman Lectures on Physics is now available in HTML form. What a fantastic resource.

Nearly fifty years have passed since Richard Feynman taught the introductory physics course at Caltech that gave rise to these three volumes, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. In those fifty years our understanding of the physical world has changed greatly, but The Feynman Lectures on Physics has endured. Feynman's lectures are as powerful today as when first published, thanks to Feynman's unique physics insights and pedagogy. They have been studied worldwide by novices and mature physicists alike; they have been translated into at least a dozen languages with more than 1.5 millions copies printed in the English language alone. Perhaps no other set of physics books has had such wide impact, for so long.

Richard Feynman and The Connection MachineJul 31 2013

I will read stories about Richard Feynman all day long and this one is no exception. Danny Hillis remembers his friend and colleague in this piece originally written for Physics Today (original here).

Richard arrived in Boston the day after the company was incorporated. We had been busy raising the money, finding a place to rent, issuing stock, etc. We set up in an old mansion just outside of the city, and when Richard showed up we were still recovering from the shock of having the first few million dollars in the bank. No one had thought about anything technical for several months. We were arguing about what the name of the company should be when Richard walked in, saluted, and said, "Richard Feynman reporting for duty. OK, boss, what's my assignment?" The assembled group of not-quite-graduated MIT students was astounded.

After a hurried private discussion ("I don't know, you hired him..."), we informed Richard that his assignment would be to advise on the application of parallel processing to scientific problems.

"That sounds like a bunch of baloney," he said. "Give me something real to do."

So we sent him out to buy some office supplies. While he was gone, we decided that the part of the machine that we were most worried about was the router that delivered messages from one processor to another. We were not sure that our design was going to work. When Richard returned from buying pencils, we gave him the assignment of analyzing the router.

For more Hillis, I recommend Pattern on the Stone and for more Feynman, you can't go wrong with Gleick's Genius.

Why don't trains need differential gears?Apr 08 2013

The other day I posted a video about how differential gears work to help cars go smoothly around curves. Trains don't have differential gears, so how do they manage to go around curves without slipping or skidding? Richard Feynman explains:

Ha, it looks like I've posted this one before as well. Can never get enough Feynman. (thx, kerry)

Richard Feynman and the Space Shuttle Challenger investigationJan 28 2013

The Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated shortly after liftoff 27 years ago today. Physicist Richard Feynman had a hand in determining the reason for the disaster.

I'm an explorer, ok? I get curious about everything and I want to investigate all kinds of stuff.

Here's Feynman's appendix to The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident in which he dissents with the majority opinion of the commission. His conclusion:

If a reasonable launch schedule is to be maintained, engineering often cannot be done fast enough to keep up with the expectations of originally conservative certification criteria designed to guarantee a very safe vehicle. In these situations, subtly, and often with apparently logical arguments, the criteria are altered so that flights may still be certified in time. They therefore fly in a relatively unsafe condition, with a chance of failure of the order of a percent (it is difficult to be more accurate).

Official management, on the other hand, claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to assure the government of NASA perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. The other may be that they sincerely believed it to be true, demonstrating an almost incredible lack of communication between themselves and their working engineers.

In any event this has had very unfortunate consequences, the most serious of which is to encourage ordinary citizens to fly in such a dangerous machine, as if it had attained the safety of an ordinary airliner. The astronauts, like test pilots, should know their risks, and we honor them for their courage. Who can doubt that McAuliffe was equally a person of great courage, who was closer to an awareness of the true risk than NASA management would have us believe?

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Clear thought, clear writing. Feynman was perhaps the most efficient mechanism ever conceived for consuming complexity and pumping out simplicity. (via @ptak)

Richard Feynman's last interviewOct 24 2012

Aired as The Quest For Tannu Tuva in the UK and The Last Journey Of A Genius in the US, this hour-long program is the last extended interview that physicist Richard Feynman gave; he died a few days after the recording.

Richard Feynman was not only an iconoclastic and influential theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate but also an explorer at heart. Feynman through video recordings and comments from his friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton tell the extraordinary story of their enchantment with Tuva, a strange and distant land in the centre of Asia.

While few Westerners knew about Tuva, Feynman discovered its existence from the unique postage stamps issued there in the early 20th century. He was intrigued by the unusual name of its capital, Kyzyl, and resolved to travel to the remote, mountainous land. However, the Soviets, who controlled access, were mistrustful, unconvinced that he was interested only in the scenery. They obstructed his plans throughout 13 years.

I could watch this guy talk all day long. Feynman is a national treasure; we should give Andrew Jackson the boot and put Feynman on the $20.

Feynman diagram sculptures by Edward TufteAug 22 2012

Opening on September 15 at Edward Tufte's gallery in Chelsea is All Possible Photons, an exhibit of sculptures by Tufte of Richard Feynman's subatomic particle diagrams.

Feynman Tufte

Made from stainless steel and air, the artworks grow out of Richard Feynman's famous diagrams describing Nature's subatomic behavior. Feynman diagrams depict the space-time patterns of particles and waves of quantum electrodynamics. These mathematically derived and empirically verified visualizations represent the space-time paths taken by all subatomic particles in the universe.

The resulting conceptual and cognitive art is both beautiful and true. Along with their art, the stainless steel elements of All Possible Photons actually represent something: the precise activities of Nature at her highest resolution.

Richard Feynman, No Ordinary GeniusApr 03 2012

Now available in its entirety on YouTube, a 95-minute documentary on physicist Richard Feynman called No Ordinary Genius.

The excellent film on Andrew Wiles' search for the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem is available as well (watch the first two minutes and you'll be hooked).

Richard Feynman on beautyOct 04 2011

Richard Feynman talking about the beauty of science and of the natural world over a bunch of video footage taken from NASA, Microcosmos, and BBC nature docs like Planet Earth? This is fantastically right up my alley.

Part two is Honours and part three is Curiosity. If I ever go on hallucinogenic walkabout in the desert, I'd want Richard Feynman to be my spirit animal. (via ★interesting)

KWHA-sohn or crah-SONT?Jul 18 2011

Julian Dibbell quotes H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage on the correct pronounciation of French words while speaking English.

To say a French word in the middle of an English sentence exactly as it would be said by a Frenchman in a French sentence is a feat demanding an acrobatic mouth; the muscles have to be suddenly adjusted to a performance of a different nature, & after it as suddenly recalled to the normal state; it is a feat that should not be attempted; the greater its success as a tour de force, the greater its failure as a step in the conversational progress; for your collocutor, aware that he could not have done it himself, has his attention distracted whether he admires or is humiliated.

I think that's what Feynman was getting at here in his discussion with Murray Gell-Mann, although, in typical Feynman fashion, not in so many words.

Richard Feynman, Gell-Mann's chief competitor for the title of the World's Smartest Man but a stranger to pretension, once encountered Gell-Mann in the hall outside their offices at Caltech and asked him where he had been on a recent trip; "Moon-TRAY-ALGH!" Gell-Mann responded in a French accent so thick that he sounded as if he were strangling. Feynman -- who, like Gell-Mann, was born in New York City -- had no idea what he was talking about. "Don't you think," he asked Gell-Mann, when at length he had ascertained that Gell-Mann was saying "Montreal," "that the purpose of language is communication?"

Science, short and sweetApr 29 2011

Seed Magazine asked a number of thinkers to provide statements about their respective fields containing "the most information in the fewest words" a la Richard Feynman:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms-little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

Richard Feynman explains magnets, sort ofFeb 02 2010

I really can't do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you're more familiar with, because I don't understand it in terms of anything else you're more familiar with.

This is why science is so maddening for some and so great for others.

Bananas and antibananasSep 16 2009

This interview with physicist Murray Gell-Mann contains several great moments, but I particularly liked the answer he gave when asked about how great his colleagues were:

I don't put people on pedestals very much, especially not physicists. Feynman [who won a 1965 Nobel for his work in particle physics] was pretty good, although not as good as he thought he was. He was too self-absorbed and spent a huge amount of energy generating anecdotes about himself. Fermi [who developed the first nuclear reactor] was good, but again with limitations-every now and then he was wrong. I didn't know anybody without some limitations in my field of theoretical physics.

I read one such anecdote involving Gell-Mann in a book some years ago:

Richard Feynman, Gell-Mann's chief competitor for the title of the World's Smartest Man but a stranger to pretension, once encountered Gell-Mann in the hall outside their offices at Caltech and asked him where he had been on a recent trip; "Moon-TRAY-ALGH!" Gell-Mann responded in a French accent so thick that he sounded as if he were strangling. Feynman -- who, like Gell-Mann, was born in New York City -- had no idea what he was talking about. "Don't you think," he asked Gell-Mann, when at length he had ascertained that Gell-Mann was saying "Montreal," "that the purpose of language is communication?"

(via 3qd)

Seven hours of Feynman lectures onlineJul 15 2009

With a little help from Bill Gates (who secured the rights using personal funds), Microsoft is presenting a series of lectures on physics by Richard Feynman. The lectures, shown in seven hour-long segments, were recorded by the BBC at Cornell University in 1964. Lecture titles are as follows:

Law of Gravitation - An Example of Physical Law
The Relation of Mathematics and Physics
The Great Conservation Principles
Symmetry in Physical Law
The Distinction of Past and Future
Probability and Uncertainty - The Quantum Mechanical View of Nature
Seeking New Laws

(thx, dan)

Feynman on trainsJul 07 2009

Richard Feynman explains how trains stay on their tracks.

Hint: it's not the flanges. (via jb)

Feynman on school textbooksOct 22 2008

Richard Feynman on the "perpetual absurdity" of school textbooks.

The same thing happened: something would look good at first and then turn out to be horrifying. For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a windup toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, "What makes it go?"

I thought, "I know what it is: They're going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work."

It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: "What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining." And then we would have fun discussing it:

"No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up," I would say. "How did the spring get wound up?" he would ask.

"I wound it up."

"And how did you get moving?"

"From eating."

"And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it's because the sun is shining that all these things are moving." That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun's power.

(via rw)

A series of four lectures on physics,Feb 04 2008

A series of four lectures on physics, specifically quantum electrodynamics, by Richard Feynman. Only Part 1 is available on Google Video and the rest are in streaming Real format (blech)...hopefully they too will make their way onto Google Video.

Update: Another lecture by Feynman, this one about Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics.

Update: I got an email from the nice folks at Vega Science Trust asking me to change the wording of this entry with regard to encouraging people to put these copyrighted videos up on Google Video. Fair enough...what I really meant by that is I wish the videos were presented in a more useable manner than RealVideo format. If there's one thing that YouTube has shown us more than anything, it's that people find watching video in embedded Flash players really convenient.

Cadaeic Cadenza is a 3834-word story bySep 10 2007

Cadaeic Cadenza is a 3834-word story by Mike Keith where each word in sequence has the same number of letters as the corresponding digit in pi. (thx, mark, who has more info on constrained writing) Related: The Feynman point is the sequence of six 9s which begins 762 digits into pi. "[Feynman] once stated during a lecture he would like to memorize the digits of pi until that point, so he could recite them and quip 'nine nine nine nine nine nine and so on.'"

Get yer Richard Feynman on at GoogleMay 10 2006

Get yer Richard Feynman on at Google Video, particularly this 50-minute video of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. A bit more Feynman at YouTube.

The case of the plane and conveyor beltFeb 08 2006

This question posed to Cecil at The Straight Dope has occupied most of my day today:

Here's the original problem essentially as it was posed to us: "A plane is standing on a runway that can move (some sort of band conveyer). The plane moves in one direction, while the conveyer moves in the opposite direction. This conveyer has a control system that tracks the plane speed and tunes the speed of the conveyer to be exactly the same (but in the opposite direction). Can the plane take off?"

I'll give you a few moments to think about that before discussing the answer...

...

...

...

Cecil says that the obvious answer -- that the plane does not take off because it remains stationary relative to the ground and the air -- is wrong. The plane, he says, can take off:

But of course cars and planes don't work the same way. A car's wheels are its means of propulsion--they push the road backwards (relatively speaking), and the car moves forward. In contrast, a plane's wheels aren't motorized; their purpose is to reduce friction during takeoff (and add it, by braking, when landing). What gets a plane moving are its propellers or jet turbines, which shove the air backward and thereby impel the plane forward. What the wheels, conveyor belt, etc, are up to is largely irrelevant. Let me repeat: Once the pilot fires up the engines, the plane moves forward at pretty much the usual speed relative to the ground--and more importantly the air--regardless of how fast the conveyor belt is moving backward. This generates lift on the wings, and the plane takes off. All the conveyor belt does is, as you correctly conclude, make the plane's wheels spin madly.

After reading the question this morning and discussing it with Meg for, oh, about 3 hours on and off, I was convinced that Cecil was wrong. There's no way that plane could take off. The conveyor belt keeps pace with the speed of the plane, which means the plane remains stationary from the POV of an observer on the ground, and therefore cannot lift off.

Then I read Cecil's answer again this evening and I've changed my mind; I'm fairly certain he's right. For a sufficiently long conveyor belt, that plane is taking off. It doesn't matter what the conveyor belt is doing because the airplane's energy is acting on the air, not the belt. I had better luck simplifying the problem like so: imagine instead of a plane, you've got a rocket with wheels sitting on that belt. When that rocket fires, it's eventually going to rocket off the end of that belt...which means that it doesn't remain stationary to the ground and if it had wings, it would fly.

What do you think? Can that plane take off?

See also Feynman's submerged sprinkler problem (answer) and an old argument of Newton and Huygens: can you swim faster through water or syrup?

Update: Well, that got out of control in a hurry...almost 300 comments in about 16 hours. I had to delete a bunch of trolling comments and it's not productive to keep going, so I closed it. Thanks for the, er, discussion and remember, the plane takes off. :)

German researchers are studying the mysterious phenomenonDec 01 2005

German researchers are studying the mysterious phenomenon of people waking up shortly before their alarm goes off. I've been getting better and better at doing this. A friend of mine (can't recall who exactly) doesn't use an alarm clock but gets up on time by setting his/her internal alarm clock. Also, this sounds like something Feynman would have been into.

Freeman Dyson on his friend and colleagueOct 04 2005

Freeman Dyson on his friend and colleague Richard Feynman for The New York Review of Books.

Great influence map of European art andAug 18 2005

Great influence map of European art and sculpture (looks largely French), detailing relationships between masters and students as well as collaborations. Reminds me of a Feynman diagram.

When bent, why does dry spaghetti breakAug 15 2005

When bent, why does dry spaghetti break into three or more pieces instead of two? This was one of the simple problems Richard Feynman amused himself with but never solved. Someone's come up with the answer: when the first breakage occurs, it causes a local increase in the curvature of the two pieces, resulting in more breakage. (thx dj)

Scientists who have tried drugs have includedAug 12 2005

Scientists who have tried drugs have included Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Stephen Jay Gould. Like Sigmund Freud, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes was a fan of cocaine. (via cyc-c)

Los Alamos From Below: Reminiscences 1943-1945, by Richard FeynmanJul 16 2005

Los Alamos From Below: Reminiscences 1943-1945, by Richard Feynman. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test which bomb Feynman helped build.

A selection of personal letters written by Richard FeynmanMay 12 2005

A selection of personal letters written by Richard Feynman.

Edward Tufte and Richard Feynman's vanMar 30 2005

Edward Tufte and Richard Feynman's van. "The Feynman-Tufte Principle: a visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van."

Feynman diagrams in Beautiful EvidenceAug 04 2004

Preview pages about Feynman diagrams from Tufte's Beautiful Evidence.

GeniusMay 06 2004

Genius

This seems familiar:

It made Feynman think wistfully about the days before the future of science had begun to feel like his mission -- the days before physicists changed the universe and became the most potent political force within American science, before institutions with fast-expanding budgets began chasing nuclear physicists like Hollywood stars. He remembered when physics was a game, when he could look at the graceful narrowing curve in three dimensions that water makes as it streams from a tap, and he could take the time to understand why.

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