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kottke.org posts about Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman’s sweet letter to his late wife Arline

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 07, 2016

At an event called Letters Live, actor Oscar Isaac read a letter that noted physicist Richard Feynman wrote to his wife Arline after her death at age 25 of tuberculosis. The letter remained unopened for more than 40 years until Feynman’s own death in 1988.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead - but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you.

(via @DavidGrann)

We Work Remotely

Richard Feynman’s Tiny Machines

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 06, 2016

In 1959, physicist Richard Feynman, who had already done work that would win him the Nobel Prize a few years later, gave a talk at Caltech that didn’t have much to do with his main areas of study. The talk was called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom and it was a scientist at the peak of his formidable powers asking a question of the scientific community: What about nanotechnology?

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

Even though he made no formal contribution to the field, Feynman’s talk has been credited with jumpstarting interest in the study of nanotechnology. No recording exists of the original talk, but in 1984, Feynman gave a talk he called Tiny Machines, in which he recalled his original talk and spoke of the progress that had been made over the past 25 years. (via @ptak)

Meet the nano sapiens

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 28, 2016

Nano Sapiens

In a 1959 talk at Caltech titled There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, Richard Feynman outlined a new field of study in physics: nanotechnology. He argued there was much to be explored in the realm of the very small — information storage, more powerful microscopes, biological research, computing — and that that exploration would be enormously useful.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, “What are the strange particles?”) but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

In a reaction to Elon Musk’s plan to colonize Mars, David Galbraith suggests there might be plenty of room at the bottom for human civilization as well. Don’t colonize Mars, miniaturize humanity. Create nano sapiens.

If we think of this as a design problem, there is a much better solution. Instead of expanding our environment to another planet at massive cost, why wouldn’t we miniaturise ourselves so we can expand without increasing our habitat or energy requirements, but still maintain our ability to create culture and knowledge, via information exchange.

The history of information technology and the preservation of Moore’s law has been driven by exactly this phenomenon of miniaturization. So why shouldn’t the same apply to the post technological evolution of humankind as it approaches the hypothetical ‘singularity’ and the potential ability for us to be physically embodied in silicon rather than carbon form.

When humans get smaller, the world and its resources get bigger. We’d live in smaller houses, drive smaller cars that use less gas, eat less food, etc. It wouldn’t even take much to realize gains from a Honey, I Shrunk Humanity scheme: because of scaling laws, a height/weight proportional human maxing out at 3 feet tall would not use half the resources of a 6-foot human but would use somewhere between 1/4 and 1/8 of the resources, depending on whether the resource varied with volume or surface area. Six-inch-tall humans would potentially use 1728 times fewer resources.1

Galbraith also speculates about nano aliens as a possible explanation for the Fermi paradox:

Interestingly, the same rules of energy use and distance between planets and stars would apply to any extraterrestrial aliens, so one possible explanation for the Fermi paradox is that we all get smaller and less visible as we get more technologically advanced. Rather than favoring interstellar colonization with its mind boggling distances which are impossible to communicate across within the lifetimes of individuals (and therefore impossible to hold together in any meaningful way as a civilization) perhaps advanced civilizations stick to their home planets but just get more efficient to be sustainable.

Humans are explorers. Curiosity about new worlds and ideas is one of humanity’s defining traits. One of the most striking things about the Eames’ Powers of Ten video is how similar outer space and inner space look — vast distances punctuated occasionally by matter. What if, instead of using more and more energy exploring planets, stars, and galaxies across larger and larger distances (the first half of the Eames’ video), we went the other way and focused on using less energy to explore cells, molecules, and atoms across smaller and smaller distances. It wouldn’t be so much giving up human space exploration as it would be exchanging it for a very similar and more accessible exploration of the molecular and atomic realm. There is, after all, plenty of room down there.

Update: I knew the responses to this would be good. Galbraith’s idea has a name: the transcension hypothesis, formulated by the aptly named John Smart. Jason Silva explains in this video:

The transcension hypothesis proposes that a universal process of evolutionary development guides all sufficiently advanced civilizations into what may be called “inner space,” a computationally optimal domain of increasingly dense, productive, miniaturized, and efficient scales of space, time, energy, and matter, and eventually, to a black-hole-like destination. Transcension as a developmental destiny might also contribute to the solution to the Fermi paradox, the question of why we have not seen evidence of or received beacons from intelligent civilizations.

Before we get there, however, there are a few challenges we need to overcome, as Joe Hanson explains in The Small Problem With Shrinking Ourselves:

As it often seems in such matters, science follows science fiction here. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick (Amazon), the Chinese miniaturize themselves in response to the Earth’s decreasing resources.

In the meantime, Western civilization is nearing collapse as oil runs out, and the Chinese are making vast leaps forward by miniaturizing themselves and training groups of hundreds to think as one. Eventually, the miniaturization proceeds to the point that they become so small that they cause a plague among those who accidentally inhale them, ultimately destroying Western civilization beyond repair.

Blood Music by Greg Bear (Amazon) has a nano-civilization theme:

Through infection, conversion and assimilation of humans and other organisms the cells eventually aggregate most of the biosphere of North America into a region seven thousand kilometres wide. This civilization, which incorporates both the evolved noocytes and recently assimilated conventional humans, is eventually forced to abandon the normal plane of existence in favor of one in which thought does not require a physical substrate.

James Blish’s short story Surface Tension tells the tale of microscopic human colonists. (via @harryh, @mariosaldana, @EndlessForms, @vanjacosic, @chumunculus)

Update: For some years, director Alexander Payne has been working on a film called Downsizing:

“Downsizing,” after all, starts off in Norway and takes place in a not-too-distant future where humans are now able to shrink themselves to 1/8 their size as a means to battle over-consumption and the rapid depletion of earth’s natural resources, thanks to enlightened hippie-like Scandinavian scientists. “Smalls” get small, then become members of small cities (the main characters moves to a city called Leisureland) protected by large nets (keeps the bugs out) and built like Disney’s Celebration Town (all planned, all pre-fabricated). Small people cash-in their savings and retire small; 1 big dollar equals 500 small dollars. Smalls live on less food, less land, and produce less trash. As the story progresses, Americans are free to get small, but in Europe, where resources are beginning to truly run out, legislation arises suggesting 40% of the population get shrunk (whether they like it or not). For the big, the world grows smaller and scarier; for the small, the world grows bigger and scarier.

Word is that Matt Damon will play the lead role. Mr. Payne, consider a title change to “Nano Sapiens”? (via @stephenosberg)

Photo by Poy.

  1. This is not a straightforward matter however. The 6-inch human wouldn’t eat 1728 times less food…that would mean you could live on a Big Mac for a year. Small animals often eat a significant percentage of their body weights each day, which normal-sized humans never approach. For example, according to this chart a grey squirrel weighs about 21 oz and eats about 1.6 oz of food, the equivalent of a 180-pound human eating about 14 pounds of food a day.

Bill Gates’ tribute to Richard Feynman, “The Best Teacher I Never Had”

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 29, 2016

As part of a celebration of the legacy of Richard Feynman at Caltech this week, Bill Gates contributed a video about what he learned from Feynman.

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge — you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

I love that video as well…just watched it again and it’s so so good.

On the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 28, 2016

Today is the 30th anniversary of the final launch and subsequent catastrophic loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger. Popular Mechanics has an oral history of the launch and aftermath.

Capano: We got the kids quiet, and then I remember that the line that came across the TV was “The vehicle has exploded.” One of the girls in my classroom said, “Ms. Olson [Capano’s maiden name], what do they mean by ‘the vehicle’?” And I looked at her and I said, “I think they mean the shuttle.” And she got very upset with me. She said, “No! No! No! They don’t mean the shuttle! They don’t mean the shuttle!”

Raymond: The principal came over the PA system and said something like, “We respectfully request that the media leave the building now. Now.” Some of the press left, but some of them took off into the school. They started running into the halls to get pictures, to get sound-people were crying, people were running. It was chaos. Some students started chasing after journalists to physically get them out of the school.

I have certainly read about Feynman’s O-ring demonstration during the investigation of the disaster, but I hadn’t heard this bit:

Kutyna: On STS-51C, which flew a year before, it was 53 degrees [at launch, then the coldest temperature recorded during a shuttle launch] and they completely burned through the first O-ring and charred the second one. One day [early in the investigation] Sally Ride and I were walking together. She was on my right side and was looking straight ahead. She opened up her notebook and with her left hand, still looking straight ahead, gave me a piece of paper. Didn’t say a single word. I look at the piece of paper. It’s a NASA document. It’s got two columns on it. The first column is temperature, the second column is resiliency of O-rings as a function of temperature. It shows that they get stiff when it gets cold. Sally and I were really good buddies. She figured she could trust me to give me that piece of paper and not implicate her or the people at NASA who gave it to her, because they could all get fired.

I wondered how I could introduce this information Sally had given me. So I had Feynman at my house for dinner. I have a 1973 Opel GT, a really cute car. We went out to the garage, and I’m bragging about the car, but he could care less about cars. I had taken the carburetor out. And Feynman said, “What’s this?” And I said, “Oh, just a carburetor. I’m cleaning it.” Then I said, “Professor, these carburetors have O-rings in them. And when it gets cold, they leak. Do you suppose that has anything to do with our situation?” He did not say a word. We finished the night, and the next Tuesday, at the first public meeting, is when he did his O-ring demonstration.

We were sitting in three rows, and there was a section of the shuttle joint, about an inch across, that showed the tang and clevis [the two parts of the joint meant to be sealed by the O-ring]. We passed this section around from person to person. It hit our row and I gave it to Feynman, expecting him to pass it on. But he put it down. He pulled out pliers and a screwdriver and pulled out the section of O-ring from this joint. He put a C-clamp on it and put it in his glass of ice water. So now I know what he’s going to do. It sat there for a while, and now the discussion had moved on from technical stuff into financial things. I saw Feynman’s arm going out to press the button on his microphone. I grabbed his arm and said, “Not now.” Pretty soon his arm started going out again, and I said, “Not now!” We got to a point where it was starting to get technical again, and I said, “Now.” He pushed the button and started the demonstration. He took the C-clamp off and showed the thing does not bounce back when it’s cold. And he said the now-famous words, “I believe that has some significance for our problem.” That night it was all over television and the next morning in the Washington Post and New York Times. The experiment was fantastic-the American public had short attention spans and they didn’t understand technology, but they could understand a simple thing like rubber getting hard.

I never talked with Sally about it later. We both knew what had happened and why it had happened, but we never discussed it. I kept it a secret that she had given me that piece of paper until she died [in 2012].

Whoa, dang. Also not well known is that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and were possibly alive and conscious when they hit the water two and a half minutes later.

Over the December holiday, I read 10:04 by Ben Lerner (quickly, recommended). The novel includes a section on the Challenger disaster and how very few people saw it live:

The thing is, almost nobody saw it live: 1986 was early in the history of cable news, and although CNN carried the launch live, not that many of us just happened to be watching CNN in the middle of a workday, a school day. All other major broadcast stations had cut away before the disaster. They all came back quickly with taped replays, of course. Because of the Teacher in Space Project, NASA had arranged a satellite broadcast of the mission into television sets in many schools — and that’s how I remember seeing it, as does my older brother. I remember tears in Mrs. Greiner’s eyes and the students’ initial incomprehension, some awkward laughter. But neither of us did see it: Randolph Elementary School in Topeka wasn’t part of that broadcast. So unless you were watching CNN or were in one of the special classrooms, you didn’t witness it in the present tense.

Oh, the malleability of memory. I remember seeing it live too, at school. My 7th grade English teacher permanently had a TV in her room and because of the schoolteacher angle of the mission, she had arranged for us to watch the launch, right at the end of class. I remember going to my next class and, as I was the first student to arrive, telling the teacher about the accident. She looked at me in disbelief and then with horror as she realized I was not the sort of kid who made terrible stuff like that up. I don’t remember the rest of the day and now I’m doubting if it happened that way at all. Only our classroom and a couple others watched it live — there wasn’t a specially arranged whole-school event — and I doubt my small school had a satellite dish to receive the special broadcast anyway. Nor would we have had cable to get CNN…I’m not even sure cable TV was available in our rural WI town at that point. So…?

But, I do remember the jokes. The really super offensive jokes. The jokes actually happened. Again, from 10:04:

I want to mention another way information circulated through the country in 1986 around the Challenger disaster, and I think those of you who are more or less my age will know what I’m talking about: jokes. My brother, who is three and a half years older than I, would tell me one after another as we walked to and from Randolph Elementary that winter: Did you know that Christa McAuliffe was blue-eyed? One blew left and one blew right; What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words to her husband? You feed the kids — I’ll feed the fish; What does NASA stand for? Need Another Seven Astronauts; How do they know what shampoo Christa McAuliffe used? They found her head and shoulders. And so on: the jokes seemed to come out of nowhere, or to come from everywhere at once; like cicadas emerging from underground, they were ubiquitous for a couple of months, then disappeared. Folklorists who study what they call ‘joke cycles’ track how — particularly in times of collective anxiety — certain humorous templates get recycled, often among children.

At the time, I remember these jokes being hilarious1 but also a little horrifying. Lerner continues:

The anonymous jokes we were told and retold were our way of dealing with the remainder of the trauma that the elegy cycle initiated by Reagan-Noonan-Magee-Hicks-Dunn-C.A.F.B. (and who knows who else) couldn’t fully integrate into our lives.

Reminds me of how children in Nazi ghettos and concentration camps dealt with their situation by playing inappropriate games.

Even in the extermination camps, the children who were still healthy enough to move around played. In one camp they played a game called “tickling the corpse.” At Auschwitz-Birkenau they dared one another to touch the electric fence. They played “gas chamber,” a game in which they threw rocks into a pit and screamed the sounds of people dying.

  1. Also, does anyone remember the dead baby jokes? They were all the rage when I was a kid. There were books of them. “Q: What do you call a dead baby with no arms and no legs laying on a beach? A: Sandy.” And we thought they were funny as hell.

The one scientific statement to reboot civilization

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 31, 2015

Riffing on a question Richard Feynman once posed to himself, Tom Chivers asked 12 scientists:

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

I liked the pragmatic answer by Lewis Dartnell, author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm

While Feynman’s sentence is all good and true, it isn’t particularly useful in an immediate pragmatic sense. I wrote a book recently which was intended as a guidebook for rebooting civilisation after an apocalypse, looking at the key technologies and central scientific principles that underpin our lives - the behind-the-scenes fundamentals that we all just take for granted today - and what enabled society to progress through the centuries of history. I argue how the greatest invention of history is the scientific method itself - the knowledge-generation machinery that we have been using for over 350 years now to come to understand how the world works. So if you could preserve only one single sentence, I would push for: ‘The natural world is not governed by whimsical gods, but is essentially mechanical and can therefore be understood and then predicted by people, using careful observation, experimentation, and measurement, and importantly by testing your explanations to try to refute them.’ It’s this reiterative process of refinement that sets science apart from any other system for explaining how the world works.

There are other tips that could help with immediate survival. Diarrhoeal disease kills millions of people every year - all preventable by simple means. One method recommended by the World Health Organisation in developing nations for low-tech treatment of drinking water is called SODIS, or solar disinfection. All you need to do is pour your suspect water into a plastic bottle and leave it in the sun. Ultraviolet rays in sunlight pass straight through and kill any germs. So you can come back to your bottle a day or two later and know that the water you put to your lips isn’t going to kill you.

(via @riondotnu)

What is the meaning of life for an atheist?

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 28, 2015

BuzzFeed’s Tom Chivers asked several atheists How They Find Meaning In A Purposeless Universe.

The way I find meaning is the way that most people find meaning, even religious ones, which is to get pleasure and significance from your job, from your loved ones, from your avocation, art, literature, music. People like me don’t worry about what it’s all about in a cosmic sense, because we know it isn’t about anything. It’s what we make of this transitory existence that matters.

These kinds of questions always make me think of Richard Feynman on beauty, science, and belief.

Richard Feynman: fire is stored sunshine

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 31, 2015

In 1983, the BBC aired a six-part series called Fun to Imagine with a simple premise: put physicist Richard Feynman in front of a camera and have him explain everyday things. In this clip from one of the episodes, Feynman explains in very simple terms what fire is:

So good. Watch the whole thing…it seems like you get the gist about 2 minutes in, but that’s only half the story. See also Feynman explaining rubber bands, how trains go around curves, and how magnets work.

The faces of the Manhattan Project

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 creationists

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 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 bands

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 HTML

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 Machine

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 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?

posted by Jason Kottke   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 investigation

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 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 interview

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 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 Tufte

posted by Jason Kottke   Aug 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 Genius

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 beauty

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 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?

posted by Jason Kottke   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 sweet

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 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 of

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 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 antibananas

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 online

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 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 trains

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 07, 2009

Richard Feynman explains how trains stay on their tracks.

Hint: it’s not the flanges. (via jb)

Feynman on school textbooks

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 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,

posted by Jason Kottke   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 by

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 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 Google

posted by Jason Kottke   May 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 belt

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 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 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. :)