Most Admired: Richard Feynman

Oh the song of the future has been sung
All the battles have been won
On the mountain tops we stand
All the world at our command
We have opened up her soil
With our teardrops and our toil …

Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian Railroad Trilogy

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Richard Feynman, physicist

 

Richard Feynman was an extraordinarily talented physicist, lecturer, Cal Tech professor and Nobel prizewinner. He was popularly best known for his role in dissecting the 1986 Challenger Disaster. He had already long been a personal hero of mine for his Feynman Lectures on Physics, with which I became acquainted in college.

Not only was Feynman a world-class physicist, he inspired many with his leadership and investigative excellence. He was an inspirational human being with a reputation as a maverick, for whom they might have invented the phrase “think outside of the box.” As a public speaker, one could sit and listen to Feynman’s physics lectures without even the foggiest notion what he was talking about, yet figure enough of that out during the course of the lecture to walk away with a lifelong sense that physics was exciting, knowable and important.

Not content to isolate the physical cause of the Challenger Disaster, that being the flawed O-Ring design supplied by Morton Thiokol, Feynman interviewed NASA management in depth to lay bare the chain of reasoning that resulted in the disaster. He exposed NASA executives’ appalling failure to grasp the basic science of the Shuttle mission. As Feynman concluded in his findings in Appendix F – Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle,

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.

In this era of Deepwater Horizon and Fukishima Daiichi, I would give almost anything if we could have another mind physicist Richard Feynman’s to define a global approach to “low-probability, high-consequence” disasters like our Gulf Oil Spill and Japan’s horrendous earthquake, tsunami and TEPCO nuclear plant meltdown.

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