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Life and Times of an itinerant slacker in Sacramento. Thrills, Spills Galore coming soon. Not to mention lots of opinions.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Mr. Feynman Surely Must Have Been Joking

Who can't love a Nobel Physicist who wrote an autobiography called, 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!'

I’ve been reading a rather dry biography of Feynman, which I don’t recommend, but that has lead me to look up some of Feynman’s gems. Although he died 20 years ago, his insights still seem relevant. Besides, who can’t love a bongo playing Nobel Prizewinning physicist.

When asked to explain the work that won his Nobel Prize, he told People Magazine, ‘If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize’.

On his deeply held Cold War fears of nuclear annihilation. ‘I would see people building a bridge, or they'd be making a new road, and I thought, they're crazy, they just don't understand, they don't understand. Why are they making new things? It's so useless.’

Feynman was the only person to directly view the Trinity test near Los Alamos. He refused to wear protective goggles, he simply sat in a truck and looked through the windshield, because he is a complete nut.

On the proper place of economics in the universe; ‘There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.’

From his press conference as part of the NASA Commission studying the first Space Shuttle failure; ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.’ I remember this press conference on TV. Feynman brought in a model of the now recognized O-ring, soaked it in a glass of ice water, and showed the world that the insulating material fails at near-freezing temperatures.

On intellectual honesty; ‘The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.’

On the value of experimentation; ‘It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.’ Feynman would be up in arms if he had lived to see String Theory, which has no experimental evidence in its support, bring physics to a state of irrelevance.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


Michael A. Gottlieb said...

Feynman did live to see String Theory; one of its early proponents, starting in the '70s, is at Caltech - John Schwarz (who, incidentally, now sits in Feynman's old office!). Feynman did not like string theory, mainly for its lack of experimental verifiability, and was known to occasionally tease the string theorists that worked down the hall from him, with taunts like, "Hey, guys! How many dimensions are we in today?"

Steve said...

MIcheal, thank you for your very knowledgeable comment. It is a pleasure to host a conversation with an expert of your stature.I find Feynman's writings and the way he lived his lifed very inspirational, I hope your work will introduce many more folks to the volumes we can lear about physics,and more importantly, life in general, from Feynman.

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I must enjoy shouting into a vacuum, but I think about getting my act together one of these days. My mom says I am very handsome and intelligent.

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