Monday, 13 May 2013

The Challenger...revisited

"Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love." These words, or words very much like them, are attributed to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, subject of the recent BBC2 film The Challenger starring William Hurt in probably his best-ever character part. I watched it twice.

There was a profile on BBC4 recently. The man who died in Los Angeles in 1988 is reportedly returning to acclaim and popularity; a little film on YouTube, in which he talks about the beauty of understanding how something works, in this case a flower, has been receiving thousands of hits.

I have seen it and have also read chunks of the book he did with Ralph Leighton, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, including the section on his experiences at Los Alamos during World War II, helping the US military to invent, on behalf of the Allies, the atomic bomb before the Nazis got there first.

Feynman said in the TV profile how much he enjoyed the intensity of the work and how he had watched through a vehicle windscreen the first test explosion in Nevada - "it's only Ultra Violet light that blinds you and Ultra Violet light cannot penetrate glass". He didn't, however, enjoy the consequences when the Little Boy bomb was exploded above Hiroshima in August, 1945.

Perhaps it was that which prompted the thought that there was more to life than the power of death encaspulated in scientific equations. Like the British philosopher Alan Watts, like the American poet John Berryman, Richard Feynman was a serious man unafraid to to strike out on his own against current orthodoxies. William Hurt conveyed this brilliantly in The Challenger.

Until this film I had never heard of Feynman; consequently I had no idea of the part he played in determining and exposing the technical fault that caused hot gases to leak from defective seals on the one of the two liquid hydrogen towers rocketing the Challenger shuttle spacecraft away from earth on the cold morning of January 28, 1986. The subsequent explosion 75 seconds after lift-off killed all seven astronauts on board.

The man from the California Institute of Technology only agreed to take part in the investigation in Washington because he allowed himself to be convinced that there was a problem that only he could resolve. Solving technical problems was one of his lifelong joys. As a kid he gained a reputation for mending faulty radios by thinking - asking himself practical questions and arriving at the probable answer.

So why would a prize-winning man of science say: "Don't fill your mind with science. Fill your heart with love."?  It sounds so Haight Ashbury, so Summer of Love. Little of the very little I know about Richard Feynman, however, suggests that he was an adherent of the flower power politics of San Francisco, or any particular philosophy. In fact he seems to have have been mistrustful of the value of philosophy.

In Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! there is a section called Is Electricity Fire in which Feynman recounts his experience of trying to understand the language of a possee of professors, invited to meet and discuss the ethics of equality. A stenotypist asked him if he was a professor. Feynman told him he was a professor of physics. "Oh! That must be the reason," he replied. Asked to explain further, the stenotypist said he didn't understand a word when the "other fellas talk. But every time you stand up to say something, I understand exactly what you mean - what the question is, and what you're saying - so I thought you can't be a professor!"

So I'm inclined to think that Richard Feynman believed that you could only truly teach anything, only truly learn anything, if you loved it.

A few years ago in a moment of serendipity I wrote a short poem the third and final verse of which goes:-
I cannot share
what I do not have.
I cannot teach
what I do not love.

That's a proposition I'd stand by.

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that," Feynman said.  This sums up, I think, what he was as a scientist and tried to be as a man.

The finale of Richard Feynman's short appendix to the official Challenger Report in 1986 reads:-
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. 

I quote this to remind myself once again that the human capacity to learn from mistakes is only outstripped by its readiness to repeat those mistakes with greater expertise. This is especially so of large organisations in which money, power and prestige outweigh any other consideration.

In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entering earth's atmosphere. Part of the spacecraft had been damaged by a chunk of protective foam that had ripped away from the underbelly of the fuel tank during flight. Like Challenger, all seven astronauts aboard were killed.

In subsequent years other shuttle flights were damaged by flaws in either design or engineering. Richard Feynman's report and his final adjuration were forgotten.

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