No Ordinary Genius

December 13, 2012 at 9:36 pm (science) (, , , , , )

I have a DVD recorded off a video recorded off the TV of an old Horizon TV programme about Richard Feynman called “No Ordinary Genius”.  I have read Feynmans two books “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman” and “What do you care what other people think?” and they are fascinating stories in their own right.  But they don’t really touch on his central work around physics.

From my university days, I still have the Feynman Lectures on Physics (my electricity and magnetism lecturer was a Feynman fan) and always have it in my mind to read them again one day (and see if I can remember any of my physics).  But the Horizon programme is great at giving a really good overview of his work, character and just quirkiness.

Now there are Feynman quotes a plenty on the Internet, but here are two that I particularly like from the series:

In the opening of the series, there is a now famous clip of Feynman talking at some student event or something and someone asks him about UFOs.  his response is that he can’t prove that they don’t exist, but that using scientific principles, he can say:

“From my knowledge of what I see of the world around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of known irrational behaviour of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational characteristics of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”

And then a story recounted by one of his colleagues that I particularly liked too:

Dick acted as a consultant for a company in Switzerland, which took him there every summer. About 1982 or so, I had business in Europe, and I met Dick in Geneva.  We decided to kick around for several days.  We did the shops and the countryside on the first day, and on the second day, he asked what I’d like to do.  I said, “Well, if it isn’t too much like a postman’s holiday, I’d like to go over to CERN,” which is the European particle accellerator, where so much particle physics is done, and where Dick used to work a number of years before.  He said, “Sure.”  So we went over there, and Dick couldn’t find his way around because the buildings had changed.  We finally found our way in, and looked into a room where there were some physicists doing work on the blackboard.  One of them spotted Feynman, and pretty soon there was a crowd gathered, and the director came in.  He decided they’d take us on a tour.  We went into a 007, James Bond cave underneath the ground, with all this wonderful high-technology equipment.  There was a giant machine that was going to be rolled into the line of the particle accelerator.  The machine was maybe the size of a two-story building, on tracks, with lights and bulbs and dials and scaffolds all around, with men climbing all over it.

Feynman said, “What experiment is this?”

The director said, “Why this is an experiment to test the charge-change something-or-other under such-and-such circumstances.”  But he stopped suddenly, and he said, “I forgot!  This is your theory of charge-change, Dr. Feynman!  This is an experiment to demonstrate, if we can, your theory of fifteen years ago, called so-and-so.”  He was a little embarrassed at having forgotten it.

Feynman looked at this big machine, and he said, “How much does this cost?”  The man said, “Thirty-seven million dollars,” or whatever it was.

And Feynman said, “You don’t trust me?”

Well worth watching again if you have a spare hour or so – its now available in its entirety on YouTube.



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