What Do You Care What Other People Think?

Richard Feynman first captured my attention way back in 1986 when he was part of the commission to determine what happened with the Challenger accident. Feynman was a renowned Nobel-prize winning physicist who demonstrated an small experiment on live TV, at a commission hearing, which cut to the meat of the problem in a singular moment.

He was also known as a maverick with a great sense of humor, and his anecdotes were the stuff of legend. Apparently, not as infused with comic relief as his previous work, I read What Do You Care What Other People Think? mostly because the book chronicles his experience on the Challenger commission, something that has interested me ever since that televised experment 22 years ago.The entire second-half of the book details his commission experience, which he almost didn't accept, except for the prompting of his wife:
    My last chance was to convince my wife. "Look", I said. "Anybody could do it. They can get somebody else."

    "No," said Gweneth. "If you don't do it, there will be twelve people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be eleven people, all in a group, going around from place to place together, while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things. There probably won't be anything, but if there is, you'll find it." She said, "There isn't anyone else who can do that like you can."

    Being very immodest, I believed her.
His experience with the commission shows the disturbing, almost comical disparity between NASA engineers and NASA management. The opening statement from his official appendix on the commission is:
    It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 100 in 100,000. The higher figures come from working engineers, and the very low figures come from management... Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could launch a shuttle each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask, "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery"?
Well, I'm glad we got that one disaster out of the way, so we have 300 years of safety left! (Managerial Mental Note: Don't show this to the Columbia crew.) His personal investigation is peppered with astonishing revelations of wrong-minded project management. In one instance, he notes:
    They point out that "since the shuttle is a manned vehicle, the probability of mission success is necessarily very close to 1.0." It is not clear what this phrase means. Does it mean it is close to 1 or that it ought to be close to 1?
But, Feynman also included the story of his first wife (from which the book gets its title), which comes from their relationship and their honesty:
    Arlene and I began to mold each other's personality. She lived in a family that was very polite, and was very sensitive to other people's feelings. She taught me to be more sensitive to those kinds of things, too. On the other hand, her family felt that "white lies" were okay.

    I thought one should have the attitude of "What do you care what other people think!" I said, "We should listen to other people's opinions and take them into account. Then, if they don't make sense and we think they're wrong, then that's that!"

    Arlene caught on to the idea right away. It was easy to talk her into thinking that in our relationship, we must be very honest with each other and say everything straight, with absolute frankness. It worked very well, and we became very much in love -- a love liek no other love that I know of.
Feynman's experience with the honest approach is heart-wrenching at times -- as when he discovers that his fiance has tuberculosis and her parents pressure him to not tell her -- and also comical:
    One time, at Princeton, I received a box of pencils in the mail. They were dark green, and in gold letters were the words "RICHARD DARLING, I LOVE YOU! PUTSY" It was Arlene (I called her Putsy).

    Well, that was nice, and I love her, too, but -- you know how you absentmindedly drop pencils around: you're showing Professor Wigner a formula, or something, and leave the pencil on his desk.

    In those days we didn't have extra stuff, so I didn't want to waste the pencils. I got a razor blade from the bathroom and cut off the writing in one of them to see if I could use them.

    The next morning, I get a letter in the mail. It starts out, "WHAT'S THE IDEA OF TRYING TO CUT THE NAME OFF THE PENCILS?"

    It continues: "Aren't you proud of the fact that I love you?" Then: "WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?"...

    So I had to use the pencils with the names on them. What else could I do?
Geeky, quirky, interesting, moving, and informative, I am planning to get more from the late genius.

No comments: