Sunday, February 15, 2009

50 years ago, a man asked a simple question...

... with a complicated answer:

"Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?"

Many years later, I read that question for the first time, and it changed my life.

The man who asked that question was Richard Feynman. He was one of my personal heroes, and he died 21 years ago today.

His speech "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom"; was the first entry into the public mind, of the possibility of nano-science:
"I imagine experimental physicists must often look with envy at men like Kamerlingh Onnes, who discovered a field like low temperature, which seems to be bottomless and in which one can go down and down. Such a man is then a leader and has some temporary monopoly in a scientific adventure. Percy Bridgman, in designing a way to obtain higher pressures, opened up another new field and was able to move into it and to lead us all along. The development of ever higher vacuum was a continuing development of the same kind.

I would like to describe a field, in which little has been done, but in which an enormous amount can be done in principle. This field is not quite the same as the others in that it will not tell us much of fundamental physics (in the sense of, ``What are the strange particles?'') but it is more like solid-state physics in the sense that it might tell us much of great interest about the strange phenomena that occur in complex situations. Furthermore, a point that is most important is that it would have an enormous number of technical applications.

What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale.

As soon as I mention this, people tell me about miniaturization, and how far it has progressed today. They tell me about electric motors that are the size of the nail on your small finger. And there is a device on the market, they tell me, by which you can write the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin. But that's nothing; that's the most primitive, halting step in the direction I intend to discuss. It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction.

Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?
Feynman was; between the time when Albert Einstein passed in 1955, until his own passing, and the entry into the public conscience of Stephen Hawking (with the publication of "A Brief History of Time" in 1988); the worlds most public face of mathematics and physics. Though Carl Sagan was arguably more famous (he did have a TV show after all); no-one had more influence, or impact, or more respect.

When the Challenger disaster was investigated, it was Feynman who was selected (as the most respected name in science), to give credibility to the largely political committee. It was also Feynman who exposed the institutional bias, and marginal competence that caused the disaster in the first place.

It wasn't because of his brilliance (not that he wasn't brilliant) so much as his uncanny ability to relate both to other scientists, and to the general public.

He had a knack for explaining physics... or anything else for that matter... in a way that anyone could understand.

He was a nobel prize winner; but he also danced like a goofball, and played the bongos, and made AWFUL jokes, and played juvenile pranks.

He was the antithesis of popular perception of scientists. He was a geek, but he wasn't JUST a geek; which is the mold popular culture tried to shove us all into for so many years.

When he died, his students placed this banner on the Miliken library:

Feynman would certainly have loved the phallic pun involved right there.

In 1960, Feynman was asked to prepare a new curriculum for freshman physics as Cal Tech (where he was a professor). He agreed to do so, provided he only had to teach the course once. Out of that course came the single greatest education in the broad base of physics, to ever have been assembled.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics are required reading for anyone seeking any kind of education on the subject. They are accessible to anyone with a more than basic knowledge of math and science; but still useful to professional physicists, who may re-read them periodically to refresh their meory on a particular topic.

I have a set, and have had since I was a teenager. They are also available electronically online; and I strongly suggest anyone with any interest in science at all seek them out and read them fully... and over again every year or two.

I also recommend his three books; "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman", "What do you care what other people think?", and "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" all of which were compiled from his written essays, and tapes of his extended interviews with his writing partner Ralph Leighton, and others.

Feynman gave several lengthly televised interviews towards the end of his life; I've embedded the first episode of several of them here.

Nova - "The best mind since Einstein?":


The Pleasure of Finding Things Out:

Take the World From Another Point of View: