Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Richard Feynman by guest blogger John Faulkner

Born in New York in 1918, Richard Feynman grew up to become one the great 20th century scientists. He shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), the explanation of how light and matter interact. To simplify the physics and mathematics involved in QED he invented Feynman Diagrams - the visualisation of complex interactions.


To other scientists he was known as the Great Explainer, excelling as a communicator with his lectures, books and interviews. See the clip below:



In the clip he is saying that to be a scientist you need to:


- Be driven by your natural curiosity - follow wherever it takes you.


- Don't be afraid of the unknown or doubt - some of the great discoveries have been made this way.


- Approach problems in your own way - challenge orthodox thinking.


In one lecture he states a new law in science starts with a guess, then the consequences are computed and compared with experience or experiment...


"If it disagrees with experiment it's wrong. That simple statement is the key to science. It doesn't matter how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who made the guess or what his name is... if it disagrees with experiment it's wrong. That's all there is to it."


Here is part of that lecture (10 minutes):



As a practical joker he convinced Italians, where he lived, he was fluent and even made himself understood. He did not know a word - they thought he had an unusual dialect!  He questioned the value of awards and prizes and when pressured into accepting his Nobel Prize he later said "prizes bother me, I don't need prizes, I already have the prize, the pleasure of finding something out new to the world'.


Shortly before he died he was invited to join investigators on the 1986 NASA Challenger Shuttle disaster. Following launch on a very cold day, the main rocket exploded killing all 7 astronauts. At the opening press conference he famously conducted an impromptu experiment to suggest a cause. By placing O ring material, used to seal rocket segments, in a glass of ice water he showed it lost elasticity. This was correct and failure of this seal turned out to be the cause. He found NASA management believed their own unrealistic loss of 1 in 100,000 launches and not listening to engineering concerns. His appendix to the investigation report concludes:


'NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks for support to be frank, honest and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of the limited resources.


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


To find out more about Richard Feynman's life some of his books are:


Surely you're Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character What do you care What Other People Think: Further Adventures of a Curious Character The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

- John Faulkner

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