Encore post: Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature

March 14, 2009

[This is an Encore Post, from August 2007 — just as it appeared then.  See especially the links on textbook selection processes, and “cargo cult” science, at the bottom.]

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.  [2009 Update:  James is studying physics in the wilds of Wisconsin, finals week at Lawrence University next week — study hard, and good luck, James!]

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.

Nuclear bombs, game theory, the Cold War to the brink

September 27, 2007

John von Neumann died prematurely at 54, in 1957. He was very much a polymath, acknowledged first for his mathematical abilities, eventually contributing to physics, computer science and economics. His contributions in nuclear physics and game theory especially deserve better recognition than they’ve gotten among the public at large.

John von Neumann, NAS photo

Princeton University commemorates von Neumann’s life on the 50th anniversary of his death, with an afternoon and a night of lectures and discussion by scientists, economists and historians, October 5 and 6, 2007.

It should be good fun, and if you’re in the neighborhood of Princeton, New Jersey on October 5 and 6, you should go.

Here’s the biographical overview of von Neumann from the National Academy of Sciences, showing him to be the sort of guy we would have been happy to keep around another 40 years or so:

John von Neumann (1903-1957). When he was elected a member of the Academy in 1937, von Neumann was known for his contributions to the fields of mathematical logic and the foundations of quantum mechanics. But his interests were wide-ranging, and he went on to do distinguished work in other fields, including economics and strategic thinking. He is perhaps best known for his work in the early development of computers. As director of the Electronic Computer Project at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (1945-1955), he developed MANIAC (mathematical analyzer, numerical integrator and computer), which at the time was the fastest computer of its kind. Built at a time long before the invention of the silicon chip, MANIAC was run on thousands of vacuum tubes. Von Neumann was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1903, and studied in Berlin, Zurich, and Hamburg. In 1930 he joined the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He became a US citizen in 1937, and during the Second World War distinguished himself with his work in weapons development. In 1955 he was named a Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission, a position he held up to his death from cancer in 1957.

Free Lecture No. 1:

Budapest: The Golden Years

Early Twentieth Century Mathematics Education in Budapest and Lessons for Today

Free and Open to the Public
Panel Discussion
October 5, 2007
3–6 p.m.
219 Aaron Burr Hall
Princeton University

The starting point for the discussion is The Social Construction of Hungarian Genius, 1867–1930, a paper by Professor Tibor Frank, an historian of Hungarian exiles. The paper will be available for distribution at the event.

Free Lecture No. 2:

“Living in von Neumann’s World: Scientific Creativity, Technological
Advancement, and Civilization’s Accelerating Dilemma of Power”

Lecture and Panel Discussion
8 pm, Saturday October 6, 2007
McCosh 50 Lecture Hall
Princeton University

Introduction by Charles Harper

Thomas Schelling, University of Maryland College Park,
Nobel Laureate, Economics
George Dyson,
von Neumann biographer

Panel Moderator:
Eric Gregory, Princeton University

Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study
Martin Nowak, Harvard University
Robert Wright, Princeton University

Banner for von Neumann Lectures, 2007

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