May 11 is Feynman Day! How to celebrate? (It’s his centenary!)

May 8, 2018

May 11, 2018, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman (born 1918, died 1988).

Most Feynman fans are celebrating through the entire year — appropriately, for a man so much larger than life and unable to be constrained after death.

We should mark the actual day, I think. It would be a good thing to celebrate science on May 11 in his honor, I think. And, there are lots of other good ways to commemorate a great guy.

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Borrowed from Luciano’s Tumblr, LikeaPhysicist

Feynman’s birthday falls on Statehood Day for Minnesota.  You can fly your flag for both causes, if you wish, Minnesota’s statehood AND Feynman’s birthday.  No proclamation will issue from the White House, but you can fly your flag any day.

Why Feynman Day?  To celebrate invention, physics, interesting characters, and that essential, American quality of je ne sais quoi.

In addition to his winning the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), Feynman popularized the critique of science and other enterprises with what we now call Cargo Cult science, or education, or whatever, where people follow the dance steps, but without the rhythm and music.

Those two things alone would make him a remarkable man.  But, like a product offered for $19.95 as a good buy in a 2:00 a.m. infomercial, with Feynman, there’s more.  With Feynman, there is always more.

I got alerted to Feynman in the first days of the old Quality Paperback Book Club, when they featured his new memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  QPBC was hot on the book, and with a title like that, how could I resist?  When I got the book a week or so later, I read it within two days, while attending law school and working full time.  I remember Feynman.

Norton published the book — and their description, alone, should make you want to read it:

A New York Times bestseller—the outrageous exploits of one of this century’s greatest scientific minds and a legendary American original.

In this phenomenal national bestseller, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts in his inimitable voice his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature.

All true, and that’s not even the half of the outrageousness, all done with great good humor, about a life lived in great good humor through what should have been a memorable age, but often was just terrifying.

I think sometimes that Feynman’s calm alone, borne of that great good humor and insatiable curiosity, may have gotten us through the birth of the Atomic Age and the Cold War.

Feynman was a giant, and we don’t revere him enough.  Consider:

  • Feynman’s high school sweetheart, Arlene, came down with tuberculosis.  He married her, and took her with him to New Mexico to make atom bombs.  The stories of her confinement to a hospital, and the laborious trekking he had to make between Los Alamos and her bedside in Santa Fe, are touching, and heartbreaking.  It is one of the great love stories of the 20th century, certainly, and perhaps for all time.  It also provided the title for his second memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Every single, college-age man should read Feynman’s stories of how to date, and how to seduce women. Women should read it, too, to know what’s happening. Consent is necessary. His approach was unique, and endeared him to women — in legend, to many women.  Feynman’s dating must have been part of the inspiration for the comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”  Feynman’s stories are better.  (Heck, it’s even the subject of a popular, classic XKCD comic — probably only Feynman and Einstein among Nobel-winning physicists have made so much money for so many cartoonists.)
US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

  • Yeah, he’s already been featured on a postage stamp, see at right.  That’s not good enough for Feynman, though — the U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation stamp for Feynman, featuring a version of his Feynman Diagrams.

    USPS authorized a special postal cancel (United States Postal Service) to honor the 80th birthday of Richard Feynman. This cancel was used in Lake Worth, Florida. For this special day the post office was renamed “Feynman Station.”
    Feynman Commemorative Cancel Feynman Diagram

    The Feynman Diagram used for the postal cancel on this envelope depicts what is known as a “bubble process.” It shows a high energy particle, for example, a cosmic ray (a) from a distant supernova, which emits a high energy photon, for example, a gamma ray (b). The photon, in turn, creates a particle (c) and an anti-particle (d) that exists for a brief moment and then recombines.

    As Feynman liked to point out, an anti-particle is the same thing as a particle with negative energy traveling backward in time (which is why the arrow at (d) points backwards, i.e. to the left). So you could say the photon created only one particle that, at first, traveled forward in time (the bottom semi-circle) and then reversed and went back in time (the top semi-circle) and annihilated itself! By inventing diagrams like this, Richard Feynman made it much easier to understand what is going on in the interactions between sub-atomic particles without getting lost in tremendous amounts of tedious math

  • Working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, Feynman developed a keen appreciation for bureaucracy and all its follies.  His vexations for the security managers are also legendary.  Here’s a quick version of one story — he asked friends and family to write to him in code, but to not include a key to the code, so he’d have to crack the code to read the letter.  Feynman could do it, but the security people couldn’t.  Hilarity ensued.
  • Feynman developed a love for the still-relatively unknown, landlocked Asian nation of Tannu Tuva.  It’s just the sort of place to appeal to a character like Feynman — so obscure most atlases didn’t, and don’t, show it at all — seemingly consumed by the Soviet Union, but held in a special status.  Home of throat singing — and almost impossible to get to.  During the Cold War, Feynman struck up correspondence with people in Tuva, to the concern of Soviet and American intelligence agencies, who seemed not to understand someone might do such thing out of curiosity.  Feynman hoped to travel there to visit new friends, but his final bouts of cancer took him before it was possible.  Tuva, famous among philatelists only, perhaps, honored Feynman with postage stamps and postcards.
  • Just try to find a photo of Feynman not smiling. The man was a joy to be around, for most people, most of the time.
  • Quantum electrodynamics?  No, I can’t explain it, either — but his work had a lot to do with how particles wobble.  I remember that because, according to Feynman, he got the inspiration for the work for which he won the Nobel while spinning plates, like a Chinese acrobat on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the delight of students in the Cornell University cafeteria, and the shock and horror of the food service people.  Who else has yet confessed to such an inspiration for a Nobel?

There’s more — a lot more.  Feynman outlined our current generation of computer memory devices — in 1959.  No, he didn’t patent the idea.  He did patent an idea for a nuclear-powered spacecraft.  Another delightful story.

Feynman in an Apple ad

Feynman was featured in print and broadcast ads for Apple — not one, but two (did anyone else get that honor from Apple?). “Think Different.” This is one of Apple Computer’s most successful advertising campaigns. The theme of the campaign is one that celebrates figures in history who changed the world by thinking differently. Richard Feynman was among the chosen figures. Image from the Feynman Group.

Feynman served on the board that approved science books for the California school system –– his stories of that work will shock some, but it will make others shake their heads as they recognize the current crop of cargo-cultists and political bullies who dominate textbook approval processes, knowing nothing at all about what they are doing, or why.

No, I didn’t forget his brilliant work on the commission that studied the Challenger disaster, for NASA. There’s so much stuff to glorify!

In history, Feynman should be remembered much as we remember Thomas Jefferson, as a renaissance man in his time, a man who put great intellect to great work for his nation and all humanity.

Feynman's second Apple ad

The second Apple ad featuring Richard Feynman. An excerpt from Apple Computer’s campaign commercial: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them… about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward; and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The sages say we shouldn’t have regrets, but I do have one. When the Challenger Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., I was working on another commission up the street. I knew Feynman was ill, but our work was important, and we’d heard his disease was in remission. I didn’t goof off a day and go to any of the hearings to see him, to get an autograph, to meet the man. I thought I’d have other opportunities to do that. Now I regret not having met him in person.

In print, and in film, I know him well. In our family, reading Feynman is something everybody does. Feynman’s memoir was one of the last books I read to our son, Kenny, as he was growing up, and growing into reading on his own. Even reading about Feynman, together, was an adventure. Our son, James, took us into the real physics of Feynman, and though I struggle with it more than James, we still read Feynman, for humor, and physics.

What would be appropriate ways to mark Feynman’s birth? At some future date, I hope we’ll have public readings of his books, showings of the documentaries about him, recreations of his lectures, perhaps. And then everyone can get in a circle, beating drums and singing about getting some orange juice, before sending postcards to our friends in Tuva.

Richard Feynman, we still need you, and miss you dearly.

Tannu Tuva

Tuva’s capital is the delightfully-named Kyzyl. From this map, can you figure out where Tuva is, or how to get there — without Google, or Bing?

Tuva postcard honoring Richard Feynman

Tuva postcard, in honor of Richard Feynman — who loved to drum.

There will always be “More” about Richard Feynman, if we’re lucky:

Richard Feynman, unlikely leader, from Open University

Have a great Feynman Day, May 11!

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

 


May 2018, flag-flying dates

May 8, 2018

"Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917," Frederick Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 1917; Addison Gallery of American Art

“Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917,” Frederick Childe Hassam, oil on canvas, 1917; Addison Gallery of American Art.
Description from the Addison Gallery: “Early Morning on the Avenue in May 1917 belongs to a series of flag paintings that Frederick Childe Hassam created during World War I, between 1916 and 1919. Totaling nearly thirty canvases, the series constituted the artist’s last significant body of work. It demonstrates his vigorous brushwork, bright palette, and what the critics called his truly American interpretation of the French aesthetic of Impressionism.
“French Impressionists had recorded contemporary life, usually under bright, sunny spring skies. Hassam was also interested in capturing weather conditions: Early Morning on the Avenue is distinct in the series for its overall whiteness, the brilliancy of the hue transforming the cloudless blue sky to a pearly white and bleaching the buildings and sidewalks to opalescent tones. The flag paintings, however, were not just about weather and light. They were begun in response to the flag displays and parades that were organized in New York City as part of the war effort. Hassam was a patriot and an ardent Anglophile, and he used these paintings to demonstrate his support for the Allies. Color and light therefore took on a metaphorical significance, the pervasiveness of white in Early Morning on the Avenue suggesting purity and the righteousness of the Allied cause.”

May has three days designated for flying the U.S. flag out of the specific days mentioned in the U.S. Flag Code, three days designated in other federal laws,  and three statehood days, when residents of those states should fly their flags.

Interestingly, the three designated days all float, from year to year:

  • Mother’s Day, second Sunday in May (May 13, in 2018)
  • Armed Forces Day, third Saturday in May (May 19)
  • Memorial Day, the last Monday in May (May 28)

Residents of these states celebrate statehood; South Carolina and Wisconsin share May 23:

  • Minnesota, May 11 (1858, the 32nd state)
  • South Carolina, May 23 (1788, the 8th state)
  • Wisconsin, May 23 (1848, the 30th state)
  • Rhode Island, May 29 (1790, the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the Constitution)

In 2016 President Obama issued a proclamation calling on citizens to fly the flag on May 1, Law Day. It’s also Loyalty Day, which got a proclamation from President Obama calling for flag flying in 2016, and from President Trump in 2017.

May 8 marks the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, the day the Axis Powers in Europe surrendered at the end of World War II.  Some years that day is marked by a proclamation calling for flag flying.  (You may fly your flag then even if Congress and the President do nothing.)

In recent years President Obama proclaimed May 15 as Peace Officers Memorial Day, with flags to fly at half-staff. We might expect another such declaration in 2018, but we’ll see next week.

May 22 is National Maritime Day, under a Joint Resolution from Congress from 1933. President Trump may proclaim that day as a day to fly the flag, too.

Twelve events on fourteen days to fly the U.S. flag.  May could be quite busy for flag fliers.

  1. Law Day, May 1, AND
  2. Loyalty Day, May 1
  3. Victory in Europe Day, May 8
  4. Minnesota Statehood, May 11
  5. Mothers Day, May 13
  6. Peace Officers Memorial Day, May 15 (half-staff flags; the law for Police Week calls for flags to be half-staff the entire week in which May 15 occurs, May 14-20 in 2017)
  7. Armed Forces Day, May 19
  8. National Maritime Day, May 22
  9. South Carolina Statehood, May 23, AND
  10. Wisconsin Statehood, May 23
  11. Memorial Day, May 28
  12. Rhode Island Statehood, May 29
US flag flying at the U.S. Supreme Court's west portico, suitable for Law Day, May 1. (But this photo was taken in June, 2012; Alex Brandon/AP)

US flag flying at the U.S. Supreme Court’s west portico, suitable for Law Day, May 1. (But this photo was taken in June, 2012; Alex Brandon/AP)

 

This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.

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