Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring

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pages: 795 words: 215,529

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

Albert Einstein, American ideology, Arthur Eddington, Brownian motion, double helix, Douglas Hofstadter, Ernest Rutherford, gravity well, Gödel, Escher, Bach, Isaac Newton, John von Neumann, Menlo Park, Murray Gell-Mann, mutually assured destruction, Norbert Wiener, Norman Mailer, pattern recognition, Pepto Bismol, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, Rubik’s Cube, Sand Hill Road, Schrödinger's Cat, sexual politics, Stephen Hawking, Steven Levy, the scientific method, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, uranium enrichment

Remarks at a Conference Celebrating the Birthday of Murray Gell-Mann, 27–28 January. Gell-Mann, Murray, and Ne’eman, Yuval. 1964. The Eightfold Way. New York: Benjamin. Gemant, Andrew. 1961. The Nature of the Genius. Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas. Gerard, Alexander. 1774. An Essay on Genius. London: Strahan. Gieryn, Thomas F., and Figert, Anne E. 1990. “Ingredients for a Theory of Science in Society: O-Rings, Ice Water, C-Clamp, Richard Feynman and the New York Times.” In Theories of Science and Society. Edited by Susan E. Cozzens and Thomas F. Gieryn. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. Gilbert, G. Nigel, and Mulkay, Michael. 1984. Opening Pandora’s Box: A Sociological Analysis of Scientists’ Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Glashow, Sheldon. 1980. “Towards a Unified Field Theory: Threads in a Tapestry.”

Each year when the Nobel prize talking comes around, of course you half think, maybe it’s possible.” F-W, 800–801. 378 THE WESTERN UNION “TELEFAX": Erik Rundberg to Feynman, 21 October 1965, PERS. 378 THE FIRST CALL HAD COME: F-W, 801; “Dr. Richard Feynman Nobel Laureate!” California Tech, 22 October 1965, 1. 378 WILL YOU PLEASE TELL US: F-W, 804. 378 WHAT APPLICATIONS DOES THIS PAPER: “Dr. Richard Feynman Nobel Laureate!” 378 LISTEN, BUDDY, IF I COULD TELL YOU: F-W, 804. 378 JULIAN SCHWINGER CALLED: Schwinger, interview. 378 I THOUGHT YOU WOULD BE HAPPY: Feynman to Lucille Feynman, n.d., PERS. 379 [FEYNMAN:] CONGRATULATIONS: “Dr. Richard Feynman Nobel Laureate!” 379 THERE WERE CABLES FROM SHIPBOARD: F-W, 806. 379 HE PRACTICED JUMPING BACKWARD: Ibid., 808–9. 380 FEYNMAN REALIZED THAT HE HAD NEVER READ: Ibid., 812. 380 HE BELIEVED THAT HISTORIANS: Feynman 1965a. 380 WE HAVE A HABIT IN WRITING: Ibid. 380 AS I WAS STUPID: Ibid. 381 THE CHANCE IS HIGH: Feynman 1965c. 381 I DISCOVERED A GREAT DIFFICULTY: Ibid. 382 THE ODDS THAT YOUR THEORY: Feynman 1965a. 382 DR.

Genius The Life and Science of Richard Feynman James Gleick For my mother and father, Beth and Donen I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there. —Richard Feynman CONTENTS PROLOGUE FAR ROCKAWAY •Neither Country nor City •A Birth and a Death •It’s Worth It •At School •All Things Are Made of Atoms •A Century of Progress •Richard and Julian MIT • The Best Path • Socializing the Engineer • The Newest Physics • Shop Men • Feynman of Course Is Jewish • Forces in Molecules • Is He Good Enough? PRINCETON • A Quaint Ceremonious Village • Folds and Rhythms • Forward or Backward? • The Reasonable Man • Mr. X and the Nature of Time • Least Action in Quantum Mechanics • The Aura • The White Plague • Preparing for War • The Manhattan Project • Finishing Up LOS ALAMOS • The Man Comes In with His Briefcase • Chain Reactions • The Battleship and the Mosquito Boat • Diffusion • Computing by Brain • Computing by Machine • Fenced In • The Last Springtime • False Hopes • Nuclear Fear • I Will Bide My Time • We Scientists Are Clever CORNELL • The University at Peace • Phenomena Complex—Laws Simple • They All Seem Ashes • Around a Mental Block • Shrinking the Infinities • Dyson • A Half-Assedly Thought-Out Pictorial Semi-Vision Thing • Schwinger’s Glory • My Machines Came from Too Far Away • There Was Also Presented (by Feynman) … • Cross-Country with Freeman Dyson • Oppenheimer’s Surrender • Dyson Graphs, Feynman Diagrams • Away to a Fabulous Land CALTECH • Faker from Copacabana • Alas, the Love of Women!


pages: 261 words: 86,261

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman, Jeffrey Robbins

Albert Einstein, Brownian motion, impulse control, index card, John von Neumann, Murray Gell-Mann, pattern recognition, Pepto Bismol, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, scientific worldview, the scientific method

FEYNMAN’S MINORITY REPORT TO THE SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER INQUIRY When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, six professional astronauts and one school-teacher were tragically killed. The nation was devastated, and NASA was shaken out of its complacency, brought on by years of successful–or at least nonlethal–space missions. A commission was formed, led by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and composed of politicians, astronauts, military men, and one scientist, to investigate the cause of the accident and to recommend steps to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. The fact that Richard Feynman was that one scientist may have made the difference between answering the question of why the Challenger failed and eternal mystery. Feynman was gutsier than most men, not afraid to jet all over the country to talk to the men on the ground, the engineers who had recognized the fact that propaganda was taking the lead over care and safety in the shuttle program.

For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02412, or call (800) 255-1514 or (617) 252-5298, or e-mail special.markets@perseusbooks.com. 10 9 8 CONTENTS Foreword by Freeman Dyson Editor’s Introduction 1The Pleasure of Finding Things Out 2Computing Machines in the Future 3Los Alamos from Below 4What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society 5There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 6The Value of Science 7Richard P. Feynman’s Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry 8What Is Science? 9The Smartest Man in the World 10Cargo Cult Science: Some Remarks on Science, Pseudoscience, and Learning How to Not Fool Yourself 11It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three 12Richard Feynman Builds a Universe 13The Relation of Science and Religion Acknowledgments Index FOREWORD: THIS SIDE IDOLATRY by Freeman Dyson “I did love the man this side idolatry as much as any,” wrote Elizabethan dramatist Ben Jonson. “The man” was Jonson’s friend and mentor, William Shakespeare.

. _______ *(1906– ) Winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics for contributions to the theory of nuclear reactions, especially for his discoveries concerning the energy production in stars. Ed. †In 1965, the Nobel Prize for Physics was shared by Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin–Itiro Tomonaga for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, and its deep consequences for the physics of elementary particles. Ed. 2 COMPUTING MACHINES IN THE FUTURE Forty years to the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Manhattan Project veteran Feynman delivers a talk in Japan, but the topic is a peaceful one, one that still occupies our sharpest minds: the future of the computing machine, including the topic that made Feynman seem a Nostradamus of computer science–the ultimate lower limit to the size of a computer. This chapter may be challenging for some readers; however, it is such an important part of Feynman’s contribution to science that I hope they will take the time to read it, even if they have to skip over some of the more technical spots.


pages: 182 words: 51,816

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time by Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, Matthew Sands

Albert Einstein, Henri Poincaré, Isaac Newton, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring

Even late in his life, when taking part in the investigations of the Challenger disaster, he took great pains to show, on national television, that the source of the disaster was something that could be appreciated at an ordinary level, and he performed a simple but convincing experiment on camera showing the brittleness of the shuttle’s O-rings in cold conditions. He was a showman, certainly, sometimes even a clown; but his overriding purpose was always serious. And what more serious purpose can there be than the understanding of the nature of our universe at its deepest levels? At conveying this understanding, Richard Feynman was supreme. ROGER PENROSE December 1996 SPECIAL PREFACE (from The Feynman Lectures on Physics) Toward the end of his life, Richard Feynman’s fame had transcended the confines of the scientific community.

Feynman wrote The Character of Physical Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. He also authored a number of advanced publications that have become classic references and textbooks for researchers and students. Richard Feynman was a constructive public man. His work on the Challenger commission is well-known, especially his famous demonstration of the susceptibility of the O-rings to cold, an elegant experiment which required nothing more than a glass of ice water. Less well-known were Dr. Feynman’s efforts on the California State Curriculum Committee in the 1960s where he protested the mediocrity of textbooks. A recital of Richard Feynman’s myriad scientific and educational accomplishments cannot adequately capture the essence of the man. As any reader of even his most technical publications knows, Feynman’s lively and multisided personality shines through all his work.

ROGER PENROSE December 1996 SPECIAL PREFACE (from The Feynman Lectures on Physics) Toward the end of his life, Richard Feynman’s fame had transcended the confines of the scientific community. His exploits as a member of the commission investigating the space shuttle Challenger disaster gave him widespread exposure; similarly, a best-selling book about his picaresque adventures made him a folk hero almost of the proportions of Albert Einstein. But back in 1961, even before his Nobel Prize increased his visibility to the general public, Feynman was more than merely famous among members of the scientific community—he was legendary. Undoubtedly, the extraordinary power of his teaching helped spread and enrich the legend of Richard Feynman. He was a truly great teacher, perhaps the greatest of his era and ours. For Feynman, the lecture hall was a theater, and the lecturer a performer, responsible for providing drama and fireworks as well as facts and figures.


pages: 335 words: 95,280

The Greatest Story Ever Told—So Far by Lawrence M. Krauss

Albert Einstein, complexity theory, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, dark matter, Ernest Rutherford, Isaac Newton, Magellanic Cloud, Murray Gell-Mann, RAND corporation, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, the scientific method

Still, questions remained, especially given the apparent disagreement with the Seattle/Oxford results. At a talk at Caltech on the subject, Richard Feynman, characteristically, homed in on a key outstanding experimental question and asked whether the SLAC experimentalists had checked that the detector responded equally well to both left-handed and right-handed electrons. They hadn’t, but for theoretical reasons they had had no reason to expect the detectors to behave differently for the different polarizations. (Feynman would famously get to the heart of another complex problem eight years later after the tragic Challenger explosion, when he simply demonstrated the failure of an O-ring seal to the investigating commission and to the public watching the televised proceedings.) Over the fall the SLAC experiment refined their efforts to rule out both this concern and others that had been raised, and by the fall they reported a definitive result in agreement with the Glashow-Weinberg-Salam prediction, with an uncertainty of less than 10 percent.

While they may be strange, the connections unearthed by Einstein and Minkowski can be intuitively understood—given the constancy of the speed of light—as I have tried to demonstrate. Far less intuitive was the next discovery, which was that on very small scales, nature behaves in a way that human intuition cannot ever fully embrace, because we cannot directly experience the behavior itself. As Richard Feynman once argued, no one understands quantum mechanics—if by understand one means developing a concrete physical picture that appears fully intuitive. Even many years after the rules of quantum mechanics were discovered, the discipline would keep yielding surprises. For example, in 1952 the astrophysicist Hanbury Brown built an apparatus to measure the angular size of large radio sources in the sky.

Schrödinger’s equation worked well to describe the energy levels of electrons in the outer parts of simple atoms such as hydrogen, where it provided a quantum extension of Newtonian physics. It was not the proper description when relativistic effects needed to be taken into account. Ultimately Dirac succeeded where all others had failed, and the equation he discovered, one of the most important in modern particle physics, is, not surprisingly, called the Dirac equation. (Some years later, when Dirac first met the physicist Richard Feynman, whom we shall come to shortly, Dirac said after another awkward silence, “I have an equation. Do you?”) Dirac’s equation was beautiful, and as the first relativistic treatment of the electron, it allowed correct and precise predictions for the energy levels of all electrons in atoms, the frequencies of light they emit, and thus the nature of all atomic spectra. But the equation had a fundamental problem.


pages: 787 words: 249,157

Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster by Allan J McDonald, James R. Hansen

Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, transcontinental railway

As far as the Mission Management Team knew, we were flying the SRBs on the basis of a Criticality 1 field-joint—and doing so on the premise that the primary O-ring would always seal, but could not depend on the secondary O-ring to seal, therefore seal redundancy in the joint was lost. The flight rationale for STS-51L stated that the ability of the primary O-ring seal could be seriously degraded by the cold temperatures, but that the secondary O-ring would seal, which was in total violation of the established critical items list and should have required a waiver from the Mission Management Team prior to launch. The critical items list did not address O-ring resiliency even though it was an even more important issue relative to the ability of the O-rings to seal at the cold temperatures forecast for this launch—and this issue should also have been addressed in the waiver. Physicist Richard Feynman was very interested in the dynamics of the field-joint, particularly the pressure actuation and extrusion of the O-rings into the gap created by the motor pressure.

Picking up a copy of USA Today, I was shocked to see my picture on the corner of the front page with the caption “Dire Warning!” (Our Challenger testimony probably would have been the feature story on the front page of every newspaper in the country had it not occurred on the very same day that the Marcos regime fell in the Philippines and Corazon Aquino came to power.) The story on Challenger contained several excerpts from the prior day's testimony and ended with the statement that NASA would have a chance to respond today. Climbing aboard the company jet, I noticed that neither my boss, Joe Kilminster, nor Jerry Mason was on the airplane. Evidently, there was quite a bit of rebuttal for them to do. During the first public hearing conducted on February 11, 1986, Rogers Commission member Dr. Richard Feynman removed a piece of O-ring that he had squeezed in a C-clamp from a glass of ice water, thereby demonstrating to NASA's Larry Mulloy the loss of resiliency of a cold O-ring.

Wear's answer might have momentarily satisfied a few Commission members, but most knew it was a farce. Neither Wear nor Mulloy had ever intended not to accept my recommendation to drop these off the PAS report and report progress by the O-ring task force at each FRR. I never received a negative response from them verbally or in writing to that effect. If the Challenger accident hadn't happened, closing out this item would surely have been accepted because they were getting pushed by their management to reduce the size of the PAS report. “Nobody answered this letter of Mr. McDonald's?” Richard Feynman asked. “No,” Wear admitted, without saying that he had had a month and a half to respond. “That's exactly the point,” heralded Sally Ride, “because you got the system that records open problems, and you have to have some way of distinguishing ‘unimportant problems’ from ‘important problems’ from ‘very important problems,’ and it seems to me the one that says ‘launch constraint’ next to it must be the ‘very most important problem.’”


pages: 107 words: 33,799

The Meaning of It All by Richard P. Feynman

means of production, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, the scientific method

Feynman wrote The Character of Physical Law and Q.E.D.: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. He also authored a number of advanced publications that have become classic references and textbooks for researchers and students. Richard Feynman was a constructive public man. His work on the Challenger commission is well known, especially his famous demonstration of the susceptibility of the O-rings to cold, an elegant experiment, which required nothing more than a glass of ice water. Less well known were Dr. Feynman’s efforts on the California State Curriculum Committee in the 1960s where he protested the mediocrity of textbooks. A recital of Richard Feynman's myriad scientific and educational accomplishments cannot adequately capture the essence of the man. As any reader of even his most technical publications knows, Feynman’s lively and multisided personality shines through all his work.

Books published by Basic Books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 11 Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02412, or call (800) 255–1514 or (617) 252–5298, or e-mail special.markets@perseusbooks.com. 05 06 07 / 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 CONTENTS Publisher’s Note The Uncertainty of Science The Uncertainty of Values This Unscientific Age Index About Richard Feynman PUBLISHER’S NOTE In April 1963, Richard P. Feynman was invited to give a three-night series of lectures at the University of Washington (Seattle) as part of the John Danz Lecture Series. Here is Feynman the man revealing, as only he could, his musings on society, on the conflict between science and religion, on peace and war, on our universal fascination with flying saucers, on faith healing and telepathy, on people’s distrust of politicians—indeed on all the concerns of the modern citizen-scientist.

Research Associates, 102, 105 Statistical sampling, 84, 89–91 Stupidity, phenomena result of a general, 95 Systems, traffic, 118 Technology applications of, 62 and science, 50 Telekinesis, 68 Telepathy, mental, 71–74 Television advertising in, 85 looker, intelligence of average, 87–88 Testing, nuclear, 106–7 Theories, allowing for alternative, 69 Thoroughness, concept of, 17 Tops, spinning, 24–26 Traffic systems, 118 Troubles and lack of information, 91 Truth of ideas, 21 writing, 56 Uncertainties admission of, 34 dealing with, 66–67, 71 relative certainties out of, 98 remaining, 70–71 of science, 1–28 scientists dealing with, 26–27 of values, 29–57 Uncertainty, 67–68 Universe contemplation of, 39 origins of, 12 Unscientific age, 59–122 Values ethical, 43 moral, 120–21 uncertainty of, 29–57 Venus flying saucers from, 75 Mariner II voyage to, 109–12 Vocabulary, 116 War, dislike of, 32 Water, and deserts, 96 Weight, as not affected by motion, 24 Western civilization, 47 Witch doctors, 114 Words, as meaningless, 20 Writing truth, 56 ABOUT RICHARD FEYNMAN Born in 1918 in Brooklyn, Richard P. Feynman received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942. Despite his youth, he played an important part in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World War II. Subsequently, he taught at Cornell and at the California Institute of Technology. In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Sin–Itero Tomanaga and Julian Schwinger, for his work in quantum electrodynamics.


pages: 389 words: 112,319

Think Like a Rocket Scientist by Ozan Varol

Affordable Care Act / Obamacare, Airbnb, airport security, Albert Einstein, Amazon Web Services, Andrew Wiles, Apple's 1984 Super Bowl advert, Arthur Eddington, autonomous vehicles, Ben Horowitz, Cal Newport, Clayton Christensen, cloud computing, Colonization of Mars, dark matter, delayed gratification, different worldview, discovery of DNA, double helix, Elon Musk, fear of failure, functional fixedness, Gary Taubes, George Santayana, Google Glasses, Google X / Alphabet X, Inbox Zero, index fund, Isaac Newton, James Dyson, Jeff Bezos, job satisfaction, Johannes Kepler, Kickstarter, knowledge worker, late fees, lateral thinking, lone genius, longitudinal study, Louis Pasteur, low earth orbit, Marc Andreessen, Mars Rover, meta analysis, meta-analysis, move fast and break things, move fast and break things, multiplanetary species, obamacare, Occam's razor, out of africa, Peter Thiel, Pluto: dwarf planet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, Sam Altman, Schrödinger's Cat, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, self-driving car, Silicon Valley, Simon Singh, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Steven Levy, Stewart Brand, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Malthus, Upton Sinclair, Vilfredo Pareto, We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters, Whole Earth Catalog, women in the workforce, Yogi Berra

Rogers, former attorney general and secretary of state. The commission determined that the explosion resulted from a failure of the O-rings. At a commission hearing, Richard Feynman stunned television audiences by dropping an O-ring into ice water. The O-ring visibly lost its ability to seal in temperatures similar to those prevailing at the time of Challenger’s launch. The recurring problems with the O-rings had been described in NASA documents as an “acceptable risk,” the standard way of doing business. As one flight after another was completed despite dangerous levels of O-ring damage, NASA began to develop institutional tunnel vision. “Since the risk of O-ring erosion was accepted and indeed expected,” explained NASA manager Lawrence Mulloy, “it was no longer considered an anomaly to be resolved before the next flight.”2 The anomaly had become the norm.

noredirect=on&utm_term=.b81dd6679eee; Wyatt Andrews and Anna Werner, “Healthcare.gov Plagued by Crashes on 1st Day,” CBS News, October 1, 2013, www.cbsnews.com/news/healthcaregov-plagued-by-crashes-on-1st-day; Adrianne Jeffries, “Why Obama’s Healthcare.gov Launch Was Doomed to Fail,” Verge, October 8, 2013, www.theverge.com/2013/10/8/4814098/why-did-the-tech-savvy-obama-administration-launch-a-busted-healthcare-website; “The Number 6 Says It All About the HealthCare.gov Rollout,” NPR, December 27, 2013, www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/12/27/257398910/the-number-6-says-it-all-about-the-healthcare-gov-rollout; Kate Pickert, “Report: Cost of HealthCare.Gov Approaching $1 Billion,” Time, July 30, 2014, http://time.com/3060276/obamacare-affordable-care-act-cost. 2. Marshall Fisher, Ananth Raman, and Anna Sheen McClelland, “Are You Ready?,” Harvard Business Review, August 2000) https://hbr.org/2000/07/are-you-ready. 3. Fisher, Raman, and McClelland, “Are You Ready?” 4. Richard Feynman, Messenger Lectures, Cornell University, BBC, 1964, www.cornell.edu/video/playlist/richard-feynman-messenger-lectures/player. 5. NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “The FIDO Rover,” NASA, https://www-robotics.jpl.nasa.gov/systems/system.cfm?System=1. 6. NASA, “Space Power Facility,” www1.grc.nasa.gov/facilities/sec. 7. The discussion on the airbag tests for the Mars Exploration Rovers is based on the following sources: Steve Squyres, Roving Mars: Spirit, Opportunity, and the Exploration of the Red Planet (New York: Hyperion, 2005); Adam Steltzner and William Patrick, Right Kind of Crazy: A True Story of Teamwork, Leadership, and High-Stakes Innovation (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2016). 8.

They were involved in more near misses. Paradoxically, a measure introduced to boost safety promoted unsafe driving behavior.77 Safety measures also backfired in the Challenger mission. The managers believed that O-rings had a sufficient safety margin “to enable them to tolerate three times the worst erosion observed up to that time.”78 What’s more, there was a fail-safe in place. Even if the primary O-ring failed, the officials assumed the secondary O-ring would seal and pick up the slack.79 The existence of these safety measures boosted a sense of invincibility and led to catastrophe when both the primary and the secondary O-rings failed during launch. These rocket scientists were like German cabbies in ABS-equipped cars, driving fast and loose. In each case, the “safe” felt safer than it actually was.


pages: 209 words: 68,587

Stephen Hawking by Leonard Mlodinow

Albert Michelson, cosmic microwave background, cosmological constant, cosmological principle, dark matter, Dmitri Mendeleev, Ernest Rutherford, Isaac Newton, Murray Gell-Mann, Nelson Mandela, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Stephen Hawking, the scientific method

In the 1980s Feynman would gain fame in popular culture as well, after publishing a few bestselling books of anecdotes, and especially after his work on the presidential commission investigating the 1986 space shuttle Challenger explosion. On that commission he kept his distance from the government-affiliated panelists and became a severe critic of NASA’s approach to safety issues, especially its tendency to underestimate risky flight conditions. Then he single-handedly identified the cause of the tragedy: they had launched the shuttle in dangerously cold weather. The result was a bad seal that developed when rubber joints called O-rings lost their flexibility. He demonstrated the effect on national television by dramatically dropping an O-ring into a glass of ice water and then pounding the ring on the table. It had become as rigid as a hammer. Carr had been encouraged when he saw Feynman taking notes during the talk, but he noted that afterward, Feynman dropped the envelope in the trash.

Einstein’s equations are in most cases extremely difficult to solve, so today we investigate their implications through the use of supercomputers, but the computer power available back then was feeble in comparison. Due to difficulties of that sort, when Stephen moved to Cambridge the practitioners of general relativity and cosmology were mainly mathematicians whose work was detached from reality and whose models of the universe were unrealistic. That kept them occupied, but nobody paid much attention to their papers. The low quality of the work prompted Caltech physicist Richard Feynman to write his wife from a 1962 conference on gravity in Warsaw, “Because there are no experiments this field is not an active one…there are hosts of dopes here and it is not good for my blood pressure: such inane things are said and seriously discussed that I get into arguments…” Most physicists concurred that questions of the origin of the universe were dead ends, but those were the questions that had won Stephen’s heart.

He showed that when you take quantum effects into account, you’re led to expect precisely the kind of radiation that Bekenstein’s nonzero entropy demanded and that general relativity could not provide. Quantum theory made it possible for Bekenstein’s entropy theory to be correct. Stephen said that he was annoyed at what he’d discovered and kept it quiet for a while. As he wrote in A Brief History of Time, “I was afraid that if Bekenstein found out about it, he would use it as a further argument to support his ideas.” But as Richard Feynman used to say, physicists don’t tell nature how things behave, nature shows physicists. So Stephen eventually accepted that Bekenstein was correct: black holes have nonzero entropy that is proportional to the surface area of their horizon; they have a nonzero temperature; and they slowly convert the matter and energy they have swallowed up into radiation that they emit back into space, gradually shrinking in the process until they eventually disappear.


Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors by Matt Parker

8-hour work day, Affordable Care Act / Obamacare, bitcoin, British Empire, Brownian motion, Chuck Templeton: OpenTable:, collateralized debt obligation, computer age, correlation does not imply causation, crowdsourcing, Donald Trump, Flash crash, forensic accounting, game design, High speed trading, Julian Assange, millennium bug, Minecraft, obamacare, orbital mechanics / astrodynamics, publication bias, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, selection bias, Tacoma Narrows Bridge, Therac-25, value at risk, WikiLeaks, Y2K

As part of the refurbishment, they were dismantled into four sections, checked to see how distorted they were, reshaped into perfect circles and put back together. Rubber gaskets called O-rings were placed between the sections to provide a tight seal. It was these O-rings that failed during the launch of Challenger, allowing hot gases to escape from the boosters and start the chain of events which led to its destruction. Famously, during the investigation, Richard Feynman demonstrated how the O-rings lost their elasticity at low temperatures. It was vital that, as the separate sections of the booster moved about, the O-rings sprang back to maintain the seal. In front of the media, Feynman put some of the O-ring rubber in a glass of iced water and showed that it no longer sprang back. And the 28 January launch had taken place on a very cold day.

This had a weird knock-on effect because, now, two previous crewless launches (AS-201 and AS-202; AS-203 was a payloadless rocket test and so not an official launch) were also retrospectively part of the Apollo programme, even though they were never given Apollo names. The first human launch thus became known as Apollo 4, giving us the niche bit of trivia that Apollo 2 and Apollo 3 never existed. More than just O-rings When the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after launch on 28 January 1986, killing all seven people onboard, a Presidential Commission was formed to investigate the disaster. As well as including Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride (the first American woman in space), the commission also featured Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The Challenger exploded because of a leak from one of the solid rocket boosters. For take-off, the space shuttle had two of these boosters, each of which weighed over 500 tonnes and, amazingly, used metal as fuel: they burned aluminium.

In my imaginary cartoon version of human evolution, the false positives of assuming there is a danger when there isn’t are usually not punished as severely as when a human underestimates a risk and gets eaten. The selection pressure is not on accuracy. Wrong and alive is evolutionarily better than correct and dead. But we owe it to ourselves to try to work out these probabilities as best we can. This is what Richard Feynman was faced with during the investigation into the shuttle disaster. The managers and high-up people in NASA were saying that each shuttle launch had only a one in 100,000 chance of disaster. But, to Feynman’s ears, that did not sound right. He realized it would mean there could be a shuttle launch every day for three hundred years with only one disaster. Almost nothing is that safe. In 1986, the same year as the disaster, there were 46,087 deaths on roads in the US – but Americans drove a total of 1,838,240,000,000 miles in that year.


How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight by Julian Guthrie

Albert Einstein, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Ayatollah Khomeini, Berlin Wall, Charles Lindbergh, cosmic microwave background, crowdsourcing, Doomsday Book, Elon Musk, fear of failure, Frank Gehry, gravity well, high net worth, Iridium satellite, Isaac Newton, Jacquard loom, Jeff Bezos, Johannes Kepler, Leonard Kleinrock, life extension, low earth orbit, Mark Shuttleworth, Menlo Park, meta analysis, meta-analysis, Murray Gell-Mann, Oculus Rift, orbital mechanics / astrodynamics, packet switching, Peter H. Diamandis: Planetary Resources, pets.com, private space industry, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, side project, Silicon Valley, South of Market, San Francisco, stealth mode startup, stem cell, Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs, urban planning

Members of the Rogers Commission, appointed to determine the causes of the disaster, found among other things that NASA managers had not accurately calculated the flight risks. Commissioner Richard Feynman, the Caltech physicist and Nobel laureate, concluded, “The management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.” Burt had followed the commission’s findings only from afar. One of the more memorable things to come out of it was something he heard from test pilot Chuck Yeager, who would swing by to visit on occasion. Yeager was appointed to the commission and attended the first meeting, where discussion centered around the shuttle’s O-rings, which failed due to the cold temperatures on the morning of the launch. (In one meeting, Feynman took an O-ring and put it in ice water, showing how the material was compromised by the cold.) Yeager, big on courage but short on patience, listened as discussions dragged on for hours.

Peter wanted to open every door and explore every subject. He was uncharacteristically silent, soaking in all of the details. He and his mom passed buildings 10 and 11 and stopped at building 8, the physics department. Created in the nineteenth century by MIT founder William Barton Rogers, the department had among its faculty and graduates a dazzling array of Nobel Prize winners and some of the field’s greatest minds, from Richard Feynman (quantum electrodynamics), Murray Gell-Mann (elementary particles), Samuel Ting and Burton Richter (subatomic particles), to Robert Noyce (Fairchild Semiconductor, Intel), Bill Shockley (field-effect transistors), George Smoot (cosmic microwave background radiation), and Philip Morrison (Manhattan Project, science educator). Physics classes at MIT had been flooded with students in the years following the launch of Sputnik and the success of Apollo.

Where no government filled the need and no immediate profit could fill the bill, the Orteig Prize stimulated multiple different attempts. Where $25,000 was offered, nearly $400,000 was spent to win the prize—because it was there to be won. Peter wanted to do for space what Orteig—through Lindbergh—did for aviation. He now had everyone’s attention. Peter told the cautionary story of Richard Feynman giving a Caltech lecture to the American Physical Society entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” where he spoke of building atomic- and molecular-size machinery. To promote the idea, Feynman offered $1,000 to the first person who could build a working electric motor no larger than one sixty-fourth of an inch on each side. He envisioned that novel technologies would have to be developed to permit the manipulation of individual atoms to win such a prize.


pages: 222 words: 53,317

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension by Samuel Arbesman

algorithmic trading, Anton Chekhov, Apple II, Benoit Mandelbrot, citation needed, combinatorial explosion, Danny Hillis, David Brooks, digital map, discovery of the americas, en.wikipedia.org, Erik Brynjolfsson, Flash crash, friendly AI, game design, Google X / Alphabet X, Googley, HyperCard, Inbox Zero, Isaac Newton, iterative process, Kevin Kelly, Machine translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." to Russian and back, mandelbrot fractal, Minecraft, Netflix Prize, Nicholas Carr, Parkinson's law, Ray Kurzweil, recommendation engine, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Second Machine Age, self-driving car, software studies, statistical model, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Steven Pinker, Stewart Brand, superintelligent machines, Therac-25, Tyler Cowen: Great Stagnation, urban planning, Watson beat the top human players on Jeopardy!, Whole Earth Catalog, Y2K

Chapter 1 WELCOME TO THE ENTANGLEMENT On a winter day early in 1986, less than a month after the Challenger disaster, the famous physicist Richard Feynman spoke during a hearing of the commission investigating what went wrong. Tasked with determining what had caused the space shuttle Challenger to break apart soon after takeoff, and who was to blame, Feynman pulled no punches. He demonstrated how plunging an O-ring—a small piece of rubber used to seal the joints between segments of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters—into a glass of ice water would cause it to lose its resilience. This small piece of the spacecraft was sensitive to temperature changes, making it unable to provide a firm seal. These O-rings seem to have been responsible for the catastrophe that cost seven crew members their lives.

Will Oremus, “Who Controls Your Facebook Feed,” Slate, January 3, 2016, http://www.slate.stfi.re/articles/technology/cover_story/2016/01/how_facebook_s_news_feed_algorithm_works.html. because of its creation by some perfect, infinite mind: “The worship of the algorithm” is discussed further in Ian Bogost, “The Cathedral of Computation,” The Atlantic, January 15, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/the-cathedral-of-computation/384300/. CHAPTER 1: WELCOME TO THE ENTANGLEMENT the Challenger disaster: James Gleick, “Richard Feynman Dead at 69; Leading Theoretical Physicist,” The New York Times, February 17, 1988, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/09/21/reviews/feynman-obit.html. car began accelerating uncontrollably: For further information on “unintended acceleration” in Toyota vehicles, see Ken Bensinger and Jerry Hirsch, “Jury Hits Toyota with $3-million Verdict in Sudden Acceleration Death Case,” Los Angeles Times, October 24, 2013, http://articles.latimes.com/2013/oct/24/autos/la-fi-hy-toyota-sudden-acceleration-verdict-20131024; Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger, “Runaway Toyota Cases Ignored,” Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2009, http://www.latimes.com/local/la-fi-toyota-recall8-2009nov08-story.html#page=1; Margaret Cronin Fisk, “Toyota Settles Oklahoma Acceleration Case After Verdict,” Bloomberg Business, October 25, 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-10-25/toyota-settles-oklahoma-acceleration-case-after-jury-verdict; Associated Press, “Jury Finds Toyota Liable in Fatal Wreck in Oklahoma,” New York Times, October 25, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/25/business/jury-finds-toyota-liable-in-fatal-wreck-in-oklahoma.html.

the system’s massive complexity: Essentially, the failure in each of these cases was due to endogenous complexity—the complexity that evolves within a large system—rather than just to any specific exogenous shock. popular narrative of the Challenger: It must be recognized that the Challenger accident was more complicated than the streamlined story we are often told about its cause. For example, engineers involved were aware of “the risk of catastrophic failure” of the space shuttle—though, as the following source notes, they could not pinpoint a specific reason—and objected to its launch. At the time, it seems, the engineers knew that “temperature might be a causal factor,” but were not certain of it. Wade Robison et al., “Representation and Misrepresentation: Tufte and the Morton Thiokol Engineers on the Challenger,” Science and Engineering Ethics 8, no. 1 (2002): 59–81, https://people.rit.edu/wlrgsh/FINRobison.pdf. Further details can also be found in this oral history of the accident, which indicates that engineers seem to have known the cause of the accident and that this information was given to Feynman to highlight in the hearing: Margaret Lazarus Dean, “An Oral History of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster,” Popular Mechanics, February, 2016, http://www.popularmechanics.com/space/a18616/an-oral-history-of-the-space-shuttle-challenger-disaster/.


pages: 416 words: 106,582

This Will Make You Smarter: 150 New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking by John Brockman

23andMe, Albert Einstein, Alfred Russel Wallace, banking crisis, Barry Marshall: ulcers, Benoit Mandelbrot, Berlin Wall, biofilm, Black Swan, butterfly effect, Cass Sunstein, cloud computing, congestion charging, correlation does not imply causation, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, dark matter, data acquisition, David Brooks, delayed gratification, Emanuel Derman, epigenetics, Exxon Valdez, Flash crash, Flynn Effect, hive mind, impulse control, information retrieval, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Isaac Newton, Jaron Lanier, Johannes Kepler, John von Neumann, Kevin Kelly, lifelogging, mandelbrot fractal, market design, Mars Rover, Marshall McLuhan, microbiome, Murray Gell-Mann, Nicholas Carr, open economy, Pierre-Simon Laplace, place-making, placebo effect, pre–internet, QWERTY keyboard, random walk, randomized controlled trial, rent control, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Richard Thaler, Satyajit Das, Schrödinger's Cat, security theater, selection bias, Silicon Valley, Stanford marshmallow experiment, stem cell, Steve Jobs, Steven Pinker, Stewart Brand, the scientific method, Thorstein Veblen, Turing complete, Turing machine, twin studies, Vilfredo Pareto, Walter Mischel, Whole Earth Catalog, WikiLeaks, zero-sum game

The person who has access to his unconscious processes and mines them without getting mired in them can try new approaches, can begin to see things in new ways, and, perhaps, can achieve mastery of his pursuits. In a word: Relax. It was ARISE that allowed Friedrich August Kekulé to use a daydream about a snake eating its tail as inspiration for his formulation of the structure of the benzene ring. It’s what allowed Richard Feynman to simply drop an O-ring into a glass of ice water, show that when cold the ring loses pliability, and thereby explain the cause of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. Sometimes it takes a genius to see that a fifth-grade science experiment is all that is needed to solve a problem. In another word: Play. Sometimes in order to progress, you need to regress. Sometimes you just have to let go and ARISE. Systemic Equilibrium Matthew Ritchie Artist The second law of thermodynamics, the so-called arrow of time, popularly associated with entropy (and by association, death), is the most widely misunderstood shorthand abstraction in human society today.

Even for those who are online and uncensored, the most valuable information can be hard to find, buried in an unscientific media avalanche. Then there’s what we do with the information we have. The core of a scientific lifestyle is to change your mind when faced with information that disagrees with your views, avoiding intellectual inertia, yet many of us praise leaders who stubbornly stick to their views as “strong.” The great physicist Richard Feynman hailed “distrust of experts” as a cornerstone of science, yet herd mentality and blind faith in authority figures is widespread. Logic forms the basis of scientific reasoning, yet wishful thinking, irrational fears, and other cognitive biases often dominate decisions. What can we do to promote a scientific lifestyle? The obvious answer is to improve education. In some countries, even the most rudimentary education would be a major improvement (less than half of all Pakistanis can read).

A better understanding of the meaning of “probability”—and especially realizing that we don’t need (and never possess) “scientifically proved” facts but only a sufficiently high degree of probability in order to make decisions—would improve everybody’s conceptual toolkit. Uncertainty Lawrence Krauss Physicist, Foundation Professor, and director, Origins Project, Arizona State University; author, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science The notion of uncertainty is perhaps the least well understood concept in science. In the public parlance, uncertainty is a bad thing, implying a lack of rigor and predictability. The fact that global warming estimates are uncertain, for example, has been used by many to argue against any action at the present time. In fact, however, uncertainty is a central component of what makes science successful.


pages: 288 words: 92,175

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon to Mars by Nathalia Holt

Bill Gates: Altair 8800, British Empire, computer age, cuban missile crisis, desegregation, financial independence, Grace Hopper, Isaac Newton, labor-force participation, low earth orbit, Mars Rover, music of the spheres, new economy, operation paperclip, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Steve Jobs, Watson beat the top human players on Jeopardy!, women in the workforce, Works Progress Administration, Yogi Berra

At each moment, I’m brought back to the women who dealt with similar struggles and triumphs a half century ago. How did they handle the sometimes awkward, sometimes wonderful challenges of being a woman, a mother, and a scientist all at once? There was only one way to find out: I’d have to ask them. JANUARY 1958 Launch Day The young woman’s heart was pounding. Her palms were sweaty as she gripped the pencil. She quickly scribbled down the numbers coming across the Teletype. She had been awake for more than sixteen hours but felt no fatigue. Instead, the experience seemed to be heightening her senses. Behind her she could sense Richard Feynman, the famous physicist, peeking at her graph paper. He stood looking over her shoulder, occasionally sighing. She knew that her every move was being carefully watched, her calculations closely studied.

At the Pentagon, von Braun turned to Pickering and said, “It’s yours now.” The rocket was out of their hands, and they could only hope it would be a success. Success or failure would be ascertained by those at JPL. Back in Pasadena, data began to come across the Teletype. Barbara started her calculations, her pencil moving furiously across the paper. Sitting at the light table, she could sense three very intimidating men towering over her: Richard Feynman, the famed physicist, now at Caltech; Feynman’s former PhD student Al Hibbs, now director of Space Science at JPL; and Lee DuBridge, the president of Caltech. Feynman stood behind her and peeked over her shoulder as she calculated the satellite’s velocity leaving Earth. He was unnaturally calm, a departure from his usually jumpy behavior. The calculations thus far looked promising. The satellite was moving with the right speed to overcome Earth’s gravitational pull and at the right angle to enter orbit.

Those on board—McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Michael J. Smith, and Ellison S. Onizuka—wouldn’t survive. The disaster was caused by a rubber loop: an O-ring seal in the right solid rocket booster had failed. The Rogers Commission, tasked by President Reagan with investigating the disaster, later found that concerns over the O-ring were raised years earlier by engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center. A memo sent in January 1978 from the chief of the Solid Rocket Motor branch at Marshall to his superior specifically pointed out problems with the O-ring and stated that proper sealing of the joint maintained by O-ring pressure was “mandatory to prevent hot gas leaks and resulting catastrophic failure.” Despite numerous objections, the design wasn’t changed. NASA minimized the issue while Thiokol, the manufacturer, stated, “The condition is not desirable but is acceptable.”


pages: 370 words: 97,138

Beyond: Our Future in Space by Chris Impey

3D printing, Admiral Zheng, Albert Einstein, Alfred Russel Wallace, AltaVista, Berlin Wall, Buckminster Fuller, butterfly effect, California gold rush, carbon-based life, Charles Lindbergh, Colonization of Mars, cosmic abundance, crowdsourcing, cuban missile crisis, dark matter, discovery of DNA, Doomsday Clock, Edward Snowden, Elon Musk, Eratosthenes, Haight Ashbury, Hyperloop, I think there is a world market for maybe five computers, Isaac Newton, Jeff Bezos, Johannes Kepler, John von Neumann, Kickstarter, life extension, low earth orbit, Mahatma Gandhi, Marc Andreessen, Mars Rover, mutually assured destruction, Oculus Rift, operation paperclip, out of africa, Peter H. Diamandis: Planetary Resources, phenotype, private space industry, purchasing power parity, RAND corporation, Ray Kurzweil, RFID, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, Rubik’s Cube, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Searching for Interstellar Communications, Silicon Valley, skunkworks, Skype, Stephen Hawking, Steven Pinker, supervolcano, technological singularity, telepresence, telerobotics, the medium is the message, the scientific method, theory of mind, There's no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home - Ken Olsen, wikimedia commons, X Prize, Yogi Berra

By the time of its final flight in 2011, the Space Shuttle had served fifteen years longer than the time for which it had been designed. After a call for proposals from museums and public institutions, NASA distributed the four remaining orbiters: original Shuttles Atlantis and Discovery, Challenger’s replacement Endeavor, and an atmospheric test orbiter named Enterprise. Kennedy Space Center, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the California Science Center, and the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York City were the lucky recipients. 18. After the Challenger disaster, President Reagan formed the Rogers Commission to investigate. In their televised hearings, physicist Richard Feynman had a memorable moment when he dipped an O-ring into a cup of ice water to show how it became less resilient at the low temperatures at the time of launch. He was scathing about the wildly unrealistic estimates of reliability from NASA engineers and the stark failures of NASA management: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

The frontier of telepresence is its merger with artificial intelligence, a development foreseen by computer science pioneer Marvin Minsky in 1980.7 A robot doesn’t need to be just a remote extension of a human; it can process information and make its own decisions. This will be exciting, but it will raise fascinating moral and ethical questions, especially if these semiautonomous robots come into contact with each other. Here Come the Bots Richard Feynman was an iconic physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum theory. His delight in understanding how nature worked was infectious. In 1959, he wrote an influential essay titled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” in which he argued that miniaturization of computers still had a long way to go. He talked about the limits of making machines and computers and realized that there might one day be technologies that could manipulate matter on the scale of individual molecules and atoms.8 That day has finally arrived.

In its early years, it was used for a mixture of scientific and military payloads; in its later years, it was used to complete assembly of the International Space Station. It also served as a reminder of the danger and the high cost of space travel.17 On January 28, 1986, a nationwide TV audience was stunned when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up and exploded in a clear blue winter sky, just seventy-three seconds after launch. Later investigation showed that a leak from an O-ring seal on one of the solid-fuel boosters had led to extreme aerodynamic stress on the spacecraft as it traveled at twice the speed of sound. Millions of schoolchildren were watching because NASA had selected Christa McAuliffe to be the first teacher in space. Chillingly, the crew cabin was intact as the vehicle broke up, so the seven crew members most likely died from subsequent impact in the ocean (Figure 13).18 The grief was repeated seventeen years later when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it reentered the Earth’s atmosphere at twenty times the speed of sound.


pages: 733 words: 179,391

Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought by Andrew W. Lo

"Robert Solow", Albert Einstein, Alfred Russel Wallace, algorithmic trading, Andrei Shleifer, Arthur Eddington, Asian financial crisis, asset allocation, asset-backed security, backtesting, bank run, barriers to entry, Berlin Wall, Bernie Madoff, bitcoin, Bonfire of the Vanities, bonus culture, break the buck, Brownian motion, business cycle, business process, butterfly effect, buy and hold, capital asset pricing model, Captain Sullenberger Hudson, Carmen Reinhart, collapse of Lehman Brothers, collateralized debt obligation, commoditize, computerized trading, corporate governance, creative destruction, Credit Default Swap, credit default swaps / collateralized debt obligations, cryptocurrency, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, delayed gratification, Diane Coyle, diversification, diversified portfolio, double helix, easy for humans, difficult for computers, Ernest Rutherford, Eugene Fama: efficient market hypothesis, experimental economics, experimental subject, Fall of the Berlin Wall, financial deregulation, financial innovation, financial intermediation, fixed income, Flash crash, Fractional reserve banking, framing effect, Gordon Gekko, greed is good, Hans Rosling, Henri Poincaré, high net worth, housing crisis, incomplete markets, index fund, interest rate derivative, invention of the telegraph, Isaac Newton, James Watt: steam engine, job satisfaction, John Maynard Keynes: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, John Meriwether, Joseph Schumpeter, Kenneth Rogoff, London Interbank Offered Rate, Long Term Capital Management, longitudinal study, loss aversion, Louis Pasteur, mandelbrot fractal, margin call, Mark Zuckerberg, market fundamentalism, martingale, merger arbitrage, meta analysis, meta-analysis, Milgram experiment, money market fund, moral hazard, Myron Scholes, Nick Leeson, old-boy network, out of africa, p-value, paper trading, passive investing, Paul Lévy, Paul Samuelson, Ponzi scheme, predatory finance, prediction markets, price discovery process, profit maximization, profit motive, quantitative hedge fund, quantitative trading / quantitative finance, RAND corporation, random walk, randomized controlled trial, Renaissance Technologies, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, Robert Shiller, Robert Shiller, Sam Peltzman, Shai Danziger, short selling, sovereign wealth fund, Stanford marshmallow experiment, Stanford prison experiment, statistical arbitrage, Steven Pinker, stochastic process, stocks for the long run, survivorship bias, Thales and the olive presses, The Great Moderation, the scientific method, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Wisdom of Crowds, theory of mind, Thomas Malthus, Thorstein Veblen, Tobin tax, too big to fail, transaction costs, Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, ultimatum game, Upton Sinclair, US Airways Flight 1549, Walter Mischel, Watson beat the top human players on Jeopardy!, WikiLeaks, Yogi Berra, zero-sum game

• 13 to walk on the moon; Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman; Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; and legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager. On June 6, 1986, a little over five months after the disaster, after conducting scores of interviews, analyzing all the telemetry data from the shuttle’s flight, sifting through the physical wreckage recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, and holding several public hearings, the Rogers Commission concluded that the explosion was caused by the failure of the Shuttle’s now-infamous O-rings on the right solid fuel booster rocket.4 The O-rings were large rubber seals around the joints of the booster rocket, rather like the gasket on a faucet. However, when exposed to cold temperatures, rubber becomes more rigid, and it no longer provides an effective seal. Richard Feynman demonstrated this in a simple but unforgettable way at a press conference.

Richard Feynman demonstrated this in a simple but unforgettable way at a press conference. He dipped a perfectly flexible O-ring in ice water for a few minutes, took it out, and squeezed it. The O-ring broke apart. The Challenger launched on an unseasonably cold day in Florida—it was so cold that ice had built up on the Kennedy Space Center launch pads the night before—and the O-rings had apparently become stiff. This allowed pressurized hot gases to escape through the seal during the launch. These hot gases seared a hole in the external fuel tank that contained the liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, also causing the booster rocket to break loose and collide with the external fuel tank, triggering the fatal explosion. The Challenger disaster was a tragic accident that had serious financial repercussions. Four major NASA contractors were involved in the Space Shuttle program: Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Morton Thiokol, and Rockwell International.

The “quants” who could speak the new mathematical language of the Street—alpha, beta, mean-variance optimization, and the Black-Scholes/Merton option-pricing formula—were given great status and even greater compensation. It was the revenge of the nerds. But any virtue can become a vice when taken to an extreme, and the mathematization of finance was no exception. Finance isn’t physics, despite the similarities between the physics of heat conduction and the mathematics of derivative securities, for example. The difference is human behavior and the role of evolution in its development. The great physicist Richard Feynman, speaking at a Caltech graduation ceremony, once said, “Imagine how much harder physics would be if electrons had feelings.” The financial crisis showed us that investors, portfolio managers, and regulators do have feelings, even if those feelings were mostly disappointment and regret during the last few years. Financial economics is much harder than physics. Introduction • 11 Warren Buffett once referred to derivative securities as “financial weapons of mass destruction”9 because of the difficulties in understanding the risks of exotic financial instruments.


pages: 342 words: 95,013

The Zenith Angle by Bruce Sterling

airport security, Burning Man, cuban missile crisis, digital map, glass ceiling, Grace Hopper, half of the world's population has never made a phone call, Iridium satellite, market bubble, new economy, packet switching, pirate software, profit motive, RFID, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs, thinkpad, Y2K

Such things sometimes happened in real life. For instance: Richard Feynman was just a physicist. But Feynman had dropped a chunk of rubber O-ring into a glass of ice water, and he had shown the whole world, on TV, how a space shuttle could blow up. If Van somehow solved Hickok’s zillion-dollar problem, that would prove that he, Derek Vandeveer, had a top-notch, Richard Feynman kind of class. Van had sacrificed a lot to get his role in public service. He’d given up his happy home, his family life, his civilian career, his peace of mind, and a whole, whole lot of his money. Van wanted to see real results from all that sacrifice. He wanted to do something vital. The KH-13 was probably the grandest and most secret gizmo that the USA possessed. If Van somehow found the KH-13’s busted O-ring, then he would be giving America the ability to photograph the entire planet, in visible and infrared, day and night, digitally, repeatedly, on a three-inch scale.

Usually, they knew very well what they wanted to corrupt, erase, alter, or illicitly copy. So a better security model would not “lock” or “wall away” anything. Instead, it would scan constantly for evil processes inside the machine. It would hunt for bad acts inside the system, in the way that the bloodstream fights germs. This was an exciting new paradigm. It offered fruitful ways forward that resolved a host of the day’s knottiest security challenges. The concept was a generation ahead of its time. Maybe two generations, given the awful state of the computer market. All the more vital, then, that the CCIAB should pioneer a serious breakthrough like that. They could run it within the Vault, an ideal place to start a working demo for a core audience. A streaming distributed supercomputer, on broadband wireless, featuring a pilot, alpha-rollout immune system.

Their scheme was to come up with a small, secret autopilot that could be quietly installed inside jets and then triggered remotely during emergencies. Then the autopilot would guide the plane and its baffled terrorists right back to earth, and the waiting arms of fully informed police. This scheme sounded simple enough, but the devil was in the details. Remote control of flying jets posed many daunting challenges, but one of the worst was the software. Because, if some clever hacker ever took over the control system itself, then all of America’s private jets could be turned instantly into remote-control flying bombs. The AFOXAR guys had done a lot of career work on remote-controlled surveillance drones. They truly got it about air control and avionics problems, but serious network security was beyond their reach.


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Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight by Margaret Lazarus Dean

affirmative action, Elon Musk, helicopter parent, index card, Joan Didion, low earth orbit, Mars Rover, Nelson Mandela, New Journalism, Norman Mailer, operation paperclip, orbital mechanics / astrodynamics, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, sensible shoes

The cause of the explosion had been the solid rocket boosters, whose faulty design combined with the unseasonably cold weather in Florida to create a catastrophic failure. A picture in the paper showed Richard Feynman, a physicist who had worked on the Manhattan Project, smirking and holding up a piece of O-ring he’d been soaking in ice water to show that it became brittle. Sally Ride, also on the commission along with Neil Armstrong, sat a few seats away, looking pissed. She’d trusted her life to Challenger twice. Only recently, since her death, has it come to light that the key piece of information about the O-rings had been supplied to another member of the commission by Sally Ride herself. The commission’s report also revealed that the crew cabin had remained intact after the explosion, that the astronauts had been alive, though not necessarily awake, for the two minutes and forty-five seconds it took them to fall back to Earth.

On the one hand, the loneliness of that final resting place was terrifying to contemplate; on the other, Mailer considered the prospect of the souls rising—as so many who have had near-death experiences describe—rising faster, more cleanly than those earthbound, into a “transpostmortal insertion to the stars.” As with Challenger, an investigation followed. Sally Ride became the only person to serve on the investigation boards for both Challenger and Columbia. As was expected, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB, pronounced “cabe” by insiders) found that the immediate cause of the disaster was a chunk of foam falling onto the tiles and that the organizational cause was a pattern of dismissing problems too easily, the “normalization of deviance” as Diane Vaughan put it so memorably in her study of Challenger. When a shuttle flew with a known issue and came back safely, the tendency among managers was to assume that the issue was not in fact a risk, using the previous success as “evidence.” “Try playing Russian roulette that way,” Richard Feynman remarked after Challenger. CAIB found that after a short period of vigilance, the same error of thinking had crept back into NASA decision making.

Mission STS-51L had been plagued by many slips and scrubs, the most frustrating of which had been the day before the launch. A special tool used to close the hatch to the crew compartment had broken off, and technicians had been unable to remove it within the launch window. If Challenger had taken off that day, a day much warmer than the fateful January 28, the rubber O-ring in the right solid rocket booster probably would not have stiffened with cold, and burning gases probably would not have escaped to detonate the external tank. Engineers, already aware of the O-ring problem, might have had a chance to fix it before the next attempt to launch in unusually cold weather. The space shuttle program might have moved forward as was intended, with the Department of Defense continuing to use it to deploy spy satellites. A second launch and landing facility might have been built, as planned, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.


Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models by Gabriel Weinberg, Lauren McCann

affirmative action, Affordable Care Act / Obamacare, Airbnb, Albert Einstein, anti-pattern, Anton Chekhov, autonomous vehicles, bank run, barriers to entry, Bayesian statistics, Bernie Madoff, Bernie Sanders, Black Swan, Broken windows theory, business process, butterfly effect, Cal Newport, Clayton Christensen, cognitive dissonance, commoditize, correlation does not imply causation, crowdsourcing, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, David Attenborough, delayed gratification, deliberate practice, discounted cash flows, disruptive innovation, Donald Trump, Douglas Hofstadter, Edward Lorenz: Chaos theory, Edward Snowden, effective altruism, Elon Musk, en.wikipedia.org, experimental subject, fear of failure, feminist movement, Filter Bubble, framing effect, friendly fire, fundamental attribution error, Gödel, Escher, Bach, hindsight bias, housing crisis, Ignaz Semmelweis: hand washing, illegal immigration, income inequality, information asymmetry, Isaac Newton, Jeff Bezos, John Nash: game theory, lateral thinking, loss aversion, Louis Pasteur, Lyft, mail merge, Mark Zuckerberg, meta analysis, meta-analysis, Metcalfe’s law, Milgram experiment, minimum viable product, moral hazard, mutually assured destruction, Nash equilibrium, Network effects, nuclear winter, offshore financial centre, p-value, Parkinson's law, Paul Graham, peak oil, Peter Thiel, phenotype, Pierre-Simon Laplace, placebo effect, Potemkin village, prediction markets, premature optimization, price anchoring, principal–agent problem, publication bias, recommendation engine, remote working, replication crisis, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Richard Thaler, ride hailing / ride sharing, Robert Metcalfe, Ronald Coase, Ronald Reagan, school choice, Schrödinger's Cat, selection bias, Shai Danziger, side project, Silicon Valley, Silicon Valley startup, speech recognition, statistical model, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Steven Pinker, survivorship bias, The Present Situation in Quantum Mechanics, the scientific method, The Wisdom of Crowds, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, transaction costs, uber lyft, ultimatum game, uranium enrichment, urban planning, Vilfredo Pareto, wikimedia commons

Why did the launch go forward when it was so cold? Safety concerns were ignored at the launch meeting. Why were safety concerns ignored? There was a lack of proper checks and balances at NASA. That was the root cause, the real reason the Challenger disaster occurred. As you can see, you can ask as many questions as you need in order to get to the root cause—five is just an arbitrary number. Nobel Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman was on the Rogers Commission, agreeing to join upon specific request even though he was then dying of cancer. He uncovered the organizational failure within NASA and threatened to resign from the commission unless its report included an appendix consisting of his personal thoughts around root cause, which reads in part: It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life.

At DuckDuckGo, it is mandatory to conduct a postmortem after every project so that the organization can collectively learn and become stronger (antifragile). One technique commonly used in postmortems is called 5 Whys, where you keep asking the question “Why did that happen?” until you reach the root causes. Why did the Challenger’s hydrogen tank ignite? Hot gases were leaking from the solid rocket motor. Why was hot gas leaking? A seal in the motor broke. Why did the seal break? The O-ring that was supposed to protect the seal failed. Why did the O-ring fail? It was used at a temperature outside its intended range. Why was the O-ring used outside its temperature range? Because on launch day, the temperature was below freezing, at 29 degrees Fahrenheit. (Previously, the coldest launch had been at 53 degrees.) Why did the launch go forward when it was so cold?

Conclusion AS WE SAID IN THE INTRODUCTION, this is the book we wish someone had given us when we were starting out in our careers. That’s because mental models unlock the ability to think at higher levels. We hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about them, and that our book has helped you in your super thinking journey. Since many of these concepts may be new to you, you will need to practice using them to get the most out of them. As Richard Feynman famously wrote in his 1988 book, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” A related mental model is the cargo cult, as explained by Feynman in his 1974 Caltech commencement speech: In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now.


pages: 281 words: 79,958

Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter

23andMe, agricultural Revolution, Anne Wojcicki, Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, Asilomar, carbon footprint, Cass Sunstein, clean water, Drosophila, food miles, invention of gunpowder, out of africa, personalized medicine, placebo effect, profit motive, randomized controlled trial, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, Simon Singh, Skype, stem cell, Ted Kaczynski, the scientific method, Thomas Malthus, twin studies, Upton Sinclair, X Prize

By 1986, America had become so confident in its ability to control the rockets we routinely sent into space that on that particular January morning, along with its regular crew, NASA strapped a thirty-seven-year-old high school teacher named Christa McAuliffe from Concord, New Hampshire, onto what essentially was a giant bomb. She was the first participant in the new Teacher in Space program. And the last. The catastrophe was examined in merciless detail at many nationally televised hearings. During the most remarkable of them, Richard Feynman stunned the nation with a simple display of show-and-tell. Feynman, a no-nonsense man and one of the twentieth century’s greatest physicists, dropped a rubber O-ring into a glass of ice water, where it quickly lost resilience and cracked. The ring, used as a flexible buffer, couldn’t take the stress of the cold, and it turned out neither could one just like it on the shuttle booster rocket that unusually icy day in January. Like so many of our technological catastrophes, this was not wholly unforeseen.

In all, the Vitamin Advisor recommended a daily roster of twelve pills, including an antioxidant and multivitamin, each of which is “recommended automatically for everyone as the basic foundation for insurance against nutritional gaps in the diet.” Since, as he points out on the Web site, finding the proper doses can be a “challenge,” Dr. Weil offered to “take out the guesswork” by calculating the size of every pack, which, over the previous ninety seconds, had been customized just for me. That would take care of one challenge; another would be coming up with the $1,836 a year (plus shipping and tax) my new plan would cost. Still, what is worth more than our health? If that was how much it would cost to improve mine, then that was how much I was willing to spend. Also on my list: milk thistle, “for those who drink regularly or have frequent chemical exposure,” neither of which applies to me; ashwagandha, an herb used in ayurvedic medicine to help the body deal with stress and used traditionally as an energy enhancer; cordyceps, a Chinese fungus that for centuries has been “well known” to increase aerobic capacity and alleviate fatigue; and eleuthero, also known as Siberian ginseng, often employed to treat “lethargy, fatigue and low stamina.”

Some years earlier she had been seriously ill, and she explained how she recovered: by taking dozens of vitamins every day, a practice she has never abandoned. With this woman’s blessing, her daughter, who had just given birth, declined to vaccinate her baby. The woman didn’t actually say, “It’s all a conspiracy,” but she didn’t have to. Denialism couldn’t exist without the common belief that scientists are linked, often with the government, in an intricate web of lies. When evidence becomes too powerful to challenge, collusion provides a perfect explanation. (“What reason could the government have for approving genetically modified foods,” a former leader of the Sierra Club once asked me, “other than to guarantee profits for Monsanto?”) “You have a point,” I told the woman. “I really ought to write a book.” I decided to focus on issues like food, vaccinations, and our politically correct approach to medicine, because in each of those arenas irrational thought and frank denialism have taken firm root.


pages: 406 words: 109,794

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein

Airbnb, Albert Einstein, Apple's 1984 Super Bowl advert, Atul Gawande, Checklist Manifesto, Claude Shannon: information theory, Clayton Christensen, clockwork universe, cognitive bias, correlation does not imply causation, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, deliberate practice, Exxon Valdez, Flynn Effect, Freestyle chess, functional fixedness, game design, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, knowledge economy, lateral thinking, longitudinal study, Louis Pasteur, Mark Zuckerberg, medical residency, meta analysis, meta-analysis, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Netflix Prize, pattern recognition, Paul Graham, precision agriculture, prediction markets, premature optimization, pre–internet, random walk, randomized controlled trial, retrograde motion, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Silicon Valley, Stanford marshmallow experiment, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Steven Pinker, Walter Mischel, Watson beat the top human players on Jeopardy!, Y Combinator, young professional

Decades later, an astronaut who flew on the space shuttle, both before and after Challenger, and then became NASA’s chief of safety and mission assurance, recounted what the “In God We Trust, All Others Bring Data” plaque had meant to him: “Between the lines it suggested that, ‘We’re not interested in your opinion on things. If you have data, we’ll listen, but your opinion is not requested here.’” Physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was one of the members of the commission that investigated the Challenger, and in one hearing he admonished a NASA manager for repeating that Boisjoly’s data did not prove his point. “When you don’t have any data,” Feynman said, “you have to use reason.” These are, by definition, wicked situations. Wildland firefighters and space shuttle engineers do not have the liberty to train for their most challenging moments by trial and error.

They all got it wrong. The Challenger decision was not a failure of quantitative analysis. NASA’s real mistake was to rely on quantitative analysis too much. * * * • • • Before ignition, Challenger’s O-rings sat squashed in the joints that connected vertical sections of the booster. At ignition, burning gas came shooting down the booster. The metal walls that connected to form a joint pulled apart for a split second, at which point the rubber O-rings immediately expanded to fill the space and keep the joint sealed. When the O-rings got cold, the rubber hardened and could not expand as quickly. The colder the O-ring, the longer the fraction of a second when the joint was not sealed and burning gas could shoot right through the booster wall. Even so, temperature usually did not matter; the O-rings were protected by a special insulating putty meant to block burning gas from reaching them in the first place.

The temperature and engine failure data are taken exactly from NASA’s tragic decision to launch the space shuttle Challenger, with the details placed in the context of racing rather than space exploration. Jake’s face goes blank. Rather than a broken gasket, Challenger had failed O-rings—the rubber strips that sealed joints along the outer wall of the missile-like rocket boosters that propelled the shuttle. Cool temperatures caused O-ring rubber to harden, making them less effective seals. The characters in the case study are loosely based on managers and engineers at NASA and its rocket-booster contractor, Morton Thiokol, on an emergency conference call the night before the Challenger launch. Weather reports on January 27, 1986, predicted unusually cool Florida weather for launch. After the conference call, NASA and Thiokol gave the okay to proceed. On January 28, O-rings failed to properly seal a joint in the wall of a rocket booster.


pages: 317 words: 106,130

The New Science of Asset Allocation: Risk Management in a Multi-Asset World by Thomas Schneeweis, Garry B. Crowder, Hossein Kazemi

asset allocation, backtesting, Bernie Madoff, Black Swan, business cycle, buy and hold, capital asset pricing model, collateralized debt obligation, commodity trading advisor, correlation coefficient, Credit Default Swap, credit default swaps / collateralized debt obligations, diversification, diversified portfolio, fixed income, high net worth, implied volatility, index fund, interest rate swap, invisible hand, market microstructure, merger arbitrage, moral hazard, Myron Scholes, passive investing, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, risk-adjusted returns, risk/return, selection bias, Sharpe ratio, short selling, statistical model, stocks for the long run, survivorship bias, systematic trading, technology bubble, the market place, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, transaction costs, value at risk, yield curve, zero-sum game

He walked up and put his face within inches of the graph. “And from here,” he pointed out, “this graph looks real ugly!” The same could be said for the process of investment and the market in which investment products exist. Moreover, the search costs of finding, monitoring, and assessing risk and return are extensive, continuous, and variable. Richard Feynman of physics fame (remember the O-ring and the Challenger story in which Feynman, instead of a lengthy discussion, simply put the rubber O-ring into a cold class of water, pulled it out, showed how inflexible it was when too cold, and thereby showed how cold temperature made it fail—end of story) has pointed out that what works at the “macro” may not work at the “micro” and that “things on a small scale behave nothing like things on a large scale.” Advances in technology, regulation, and globalization have further increased 246 THE NEW SCIENCE OF ASSET ALLOCATION the pace of change and the need to manage it.

Thus, while we know very few fundamental truths, one, however, that we can collectively agree upon is that the evolution of asset allocation draws upon the aforementioned changes flowing from a dynamic world in which new forms of assets and risk management tools are constantly being created. Relative risks and returns and the ability to monitor and manage the process by which these evolving assets fit into portfolios will change and will be based on currently unknown relationships and information. Certainly today the challenge is greater, not only because we are working in a more dynamic market but the number of investment vehicles available to investors has increased as well. Hopefully, the following chapters will provide some guidance to meet this challenge. WHAT EVERY INVESTOR SHOULD REMEMBER ■ Much of what we do in asset allocation is based on the tradeoffs between the costs and returns of various approaches to return and risk estimation. Choosing among the various courses of action based on those risky alternatives lies at the heart of a wide range of various approaches to asset allocation, including strategic asset management, tactical asset management, and dynamic asset management.

The reader should also be aware that like most things, the ideas expressed in this book are time sensitive. The writing of this book began in the early spring of 2009 and concluded in early 2010. Throughout this period, extreme events have occurred. If history is to be a teacher, we know that the future will provide additional information where many of the thoughts and questions within this book will be challenged as well as proven incorrect. Also, throughout this book the reader has been cautioned to be wary of historical data, historical thoughts, and historical performance. In other words show little fear in puncturing myths and their companions. History rarely repeats itself in the same manner; and one of the failings of modern portfolio design as well as some of the recent academic xviii PREFACE and quantitative research is the presumption that it will.


Amazing Stories of the Space Age by Rod Pyle

centre right, desegregation, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, low earth orbit, Mars Rover, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan

With fuel raining down from the top of the ET, and with structural loads shifting and the aerodynamics of the vehicle compromised, the shuttle broke up and the fuel ignited, creating a huge fireball. While the crew cabin of the orbiter was blown clear, and continued ascending until it arced into the ocean, survival was impossible. There was no abort system for that phase of the flight—when the SRBs were burning, you were along for the ride no matter what. As the famed physicist Richard Feynman, who was a member of the investigation board, pointed out, the O-rings had not been tested below 50°F. They became brittle when cold, as he famously demonstrated by immersing a piece of one in a glass of ice water and snapping it in two. He ended his summary with, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”5 There was no better summary of the relaxed safety culture that had taken hold at NASA prior to the accident.

Proper investigation of the warnings could have prevented the Columbia accident, but they were instead noted and largely put aside. There had been multiple warnings prior to the Challenger accident as well. In January 1985, Discovery flew a mission called 51-C. When the SRBs were recovered and disassembled—they came apart into four separate tube segments—severe blowby was seen on some of the O-rings on both SRBs. The rubber gasket, the culprit in the Challenger accident, was severely charred and burned away, allowing hot gas to reach a secondary seal (this too failed on Challenger). The Discovery launch was also the coldest to date, at 53°F.7 This alone should have rung alarm bells when Challenger was attempting to launch on a morning that was only 28°F. After the Challenger incident, the joints between the SRB segments were redesigned to add another O-ring, and also had a rim-capture feature—basically, rather than allowing the joint to bend open if the booster flexed, it would tighten.

Emergency procedures were implemented, but the orbiter was a total loss, plunging at terminal velocities into the Atlantic in pieces. The SRBs continued to burn and ascend until destroyed by the air force range safety officer. The crew cabin of the orbiter smashed into the ocean relatively intact, but was crushed by the force of impact. All seven astronauts died. During the resulting shutdown of the program, investigators determined that due to a combination of poor design and the cold weather, a rubber O-ring that sealed a joint between sections of the left SRB deteriorated due to burn-through. The hot gasses of the burning solid fuel spewed out of the joint like a blowtorch, severing the lower strut that affixed the SRB to the external tank. When that strut let go, the SRB pivoted on its remaining upper strut, and its tip punctured the external tank. With fuel raining down from the top of the ET, and with structural loads shifting and the aerodynamics of the vehicle compromised, the shuttle broke up and the fuel ignited, creating a huge fireball.


pages: 326 words: 106,053

The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

AltaVista, Andrei Shleifer, asset allocation, Cass Sunstein, coronavirus, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, experimental economics, Frederick Winslow Taylor, George Akerlof, Howard Rheingold, I think there is a world market for maybe five computers, interchangeable parts, Jeff Bezos, John Meriwether, Joseph Schumpeter, knowledge economy, lone genius, Long Term Capital Management, market bubble, market clearing, market design, Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay, moral hazard, Myron Scholes, new economy, offshore financial centre, Picturephone, prediction markets, profit maximization, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Richard Thaler, Robert Shiller, Robert Shiller, Ronald Coase, Ronald Reagan, shareholder value, short selling, Silicon Valley, South Sea Bubble, The Nature of the Firm, The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, The Wisdom of Crowds, Toyota Production System, transaction costs, ultimatum game, Yogi Berra, zero-sum game

While the New York Times article on the disaster that appeared the next morning did mention two rumors that had been making the rounds, neither of the rumors implicated Thiokol, and the Times declared, “There are no clues to the cause of the accident.” Regardless, the market was right. Six months after the explosion, the Presidential Commission on the Challenger revealed that the O-ring seals on the booster rockets made by Thiokol—seals that were supposed to prevent hot exhaust gases from escaping—became less resilient in cold weather, creating gaps that allowed the gases to leak out. (The physicist Richard Feynman famously demonstrated this at a congressional hearing by dropping an O-ring in a glass of ice water. When he pulled it out, the drop in temperature had made it brittle.) In the case of the Challenger, the hot gases had escaped and burned into the main fuel tank, causing the cataclysmic explosion. Thiokol was held liable for the accident. The other companies were exonerated.

If you strip the story down to its basics, after all, what happened that January day was this: a large group of individuals (the actual and potential shareholders of Thiokol’s stock, and the stocks of its competitors) was asked a question—“How much less are these four companies worth now that the Challenger has exploded?”—that had an objectively correct answer. Those are conditions under which a crowd’s average estimate—which is, dollar weighted, what a stock price is—is likely to be accurate. Perhaps someone did, in fact, have inside knowledge of what had happened to the O-rings. But even if no one did, it’s plausible that once you aggregated all the bits of information about the explosion that all the traders in the market had in their heads that day, it added up to something close to the truth. As was true of those who helped John Craven find the Scorpion, even if none of the traders was sure that Thiokol was responsible, collectively they were certain it was.

That day, it was just buyers and sellers trying to figure out what happened and getting it right. How did they get it right? That’s the question that Maloney and Mulherin found so vexing. First, they looked at the records of insider trades to see if Thiokol executives, who might have known that their company was responsible, had dumped stock on January 28. They hadn’t. Nor had executives at Thiokol’s competitors, who might have heard about the O-rings and sold Thiokol’s stock short. There was no evidence that anyone had dumped Thiokol stock while buying the stocks of the other three contractors (which would have been the logical trade for someone with inside information). Savvy insiders alone did not cause that first-day drop in Thiokol’s price. It was all those investors—most of them relatively uninformed—who simply refused to buy the stock.


pages: 415 words: 123,373

Inviting Disaster by James R. Chiles

Airbus A320, airline deregulation, crew resource management, cuban missile crisis, Exxon Valdez, Maui Hawaii, Milgram experiment, North Sea oil, Piper Alpha, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance

A garden hose left out in winter weather turns as stiff as a pipe regardless of whether it has water in it. During the post-accident investigation, physicist Richard Feynman would demonstrate the principle by dipping a segment of an O-ring into a glass of ice water. In August 1985 top officials from Marshall flew to Utah to talk over the problem with Morton Thiokol management. Roger Boisjoly, a seal engineer with Thiokol, got the assignment to put together a “Seal Task Force” to come up with a quick solution. After three months of work, the R.101 emerged from the shed on October 1, 1930, leaving barely enough time for a departure on October 3. The men were close to frantic by Thomson’s insistence on taking the airship to India and back in time to attend a conference in London on October 20. From Thomson’s view, the Royal Airship Works had already spent two years more than expected to make the airship flightworthy, and now it was time to finish the job, regardless of the setbacks.

For an ordinary pipeline this would have been fine, but not for the high-powered, hot-firing boosters. One challenge was that at each field joint a thin air gap remained between the solid fuel castings in each segment. Without some precautions, flame would fill this gap during a launch and attack the half-inch-thick steel of the booster’s outer casing. To keep the flame at the core of the booster where it belonged, the field joints had heat-resistant putty to close off the gap between the fuel castings, and two rubber O-rings fitted into the rim-and-slot arrangement as a final seal. FIGURE 4: SPACE SHUTTLE CHALLENGER PROBABLE SEQUENCE 1. Cold temperatures before launch reduce sealing ability of O-rings inside Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) field joints. 2. Exhaust gas leaks from aft field joint of right-hand SRB for first three seconds of flight, then stops. 3.

Never bringing the problem directly to the astronauts for their input, never taking the danger seriously enough to stop the program for a proper fix, NASA tried to contain the O-ring crisis by fiddling with small things such as insulating putty and the O-ring testing procedure, not even willing to delay the final launch to wait for warmer weather unless Thiokol came up with something more compelling than its technical judgment. It was the “normalization of deviance,” according to Vaughan. “There is only one driving reason that a potentially dangerous system would be allowed to fly,” wrote chief astronaut John W. Young after the disaster: “launch schedule pressure.” DREAMING GREAT DREAMS The British hydrogen-filled dirigible R.101 and the space shuttle Challenger were both megaprojects born out of great national aspirations. The same high-flying promises it took to get them started forced them to keep going forward, despite specific, written warnings of danger by key technical people.


pages: 328 words: 96,141

Rocket Billionaires: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and the New Space Race by Tim Fernholz

Amazon Web Services, autonomous vehicles, business climate, Charles Lindbergh, Clayton Christensen, cloud computing, Colonization of Mars, corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, disruptive innovation, Donald Trump, Elon Musk, high net worth, Iridium satellite, Jeff Bezos, Kickstarter, low earth orbit, Marc Andreessen, Mark Zuckerberg, minimum viable product, multiplanetary species, mutually assured destruction, new economy, nuclear paranoia, paypal mafia, Peter H. Diamandis: Planetary Resources, Peter Thiel, pets.com, planetary scale, private space industry, profit maximization, RAND corporation, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Ronald Reagan, shareholder value, Silicon Valley, skunkworks, sovereign wealth fund, Stephen Hawking, Steve Jobs, trade route, undersea cable, We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters, X Prize, Y2K

It was the worst NASA accident since a harrowing 1967 episode in which an Apollo space capsule burst into flame during a routine pre-launch test, killing the three astronauts on board. Challenger led to serious reconsideration of US space policy. The loss of the seven astronauts who perished in that venture convinced the top brass at NASA that it was too risky to put humans on every flight into space. That was especially true of those missions intended to launch satellites or space probes, with no real human exploration component. Since the shuttle was designed expressly for human spaceflight, this conclusion required the government to find new rockets to launch satellites without people on board. Noble Prize–winning physicist Richard Feynman, a member of the distinguished panel investigating the disaster, famously demonstrated the tiny flaw that had led to Challenger’s loss. He dunked rubber O-rings, used in the construction of the solid fuel rocket booster, into a pitcher of cold water.

The investigators identified a disturbing number of parallels between the destruction of Columbia and the Challenger disaster, seventeen years earlier, where a rubber ring had been the cause. In both cases, worried engineers were challenged by managers to prove conclusively that their vehicle was unsafe, without being given the resources to do so. Building an institution that performed the complex engineering tasks of spaceflight, on budget and on schedule, while avoiding complacency and buck-passing, still remained beyond the reach of the US space program. Amazingly, while this tragedy registered at the moment, it also seemed to fade quickly from the country’s collective memory. In comparison with the Challenger disaster, the loss of the Columbia had less of a cultural impact—perhaps because it was the second such tragedy, but surely also because of national distraction: four days after the accident, Secretary of State Colin Powell would present his flawed case for an invasion of Iraq to the United Nations General Assembly.

It had also, in 1980, helped convince a consortium of European countries to fund Arianespace, a rocket maker that would guarantee their own access to space. Indeed, the US reliance on just one launch vehicle for space access had worried some Americans, especially as delays and cost overruns in the shuttle program mounted, but it was not until Challenger that the government was forced to reckon with the consequences of its policy. “The government put all their eggs in one basket,” John Garvey, a veteran aerospace engineer who began his career the year of the Challenger disaster and spent the following decades developing rocket technology at McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, and a series of space start-ups, told me. “The shuttle was flawed because it tried to do everything for everybody, and it ended up not satisfying anybody. The government tries to do this every ten years.”


pages: 428 words: 121,717

Warnings by Richard A. Clarke

active measures, Albert Einstein, algorithmic trading, anti-communist, artificial general intelligence, Asilomar, Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, Bernie Madoff, cognitive bias, collateralized debt obligation, complexity theory, corporate governance, cuban missile crisis, data acquisition, discovery of penicillin, double helix, Elon Musk, failed state, financial thriller, fixed income, Flash crash, forensic accounting, friendly AI, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Internet of things, James Watt: steam engine, Jeff Bezos, John Maynard Keynes: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, knowledge worker, Maui Hawaii, megacity, Mikhail Gorbachev, money market fund, mouse model, Nate Silver, new economy, Nicholas Carr, nuclear winter, pattern recognition, personalized medicine, phenotype, Ponzi scheme, Ray Kurzweil, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, risk tolerance, Ronald Reagan, Sam Altman, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, self-driving car, Silicon Valley, smart grid, statistical model, Stephen Hawking, Stuxnet, technological singularity, The Future of Employment, the scientific method, The Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, Tunguska event, uranium enrichment, Vernor Vinge, Watson beat the top human players on Jeopardy!, women in the workforce, Y2K

He became seriously concerned, not only by the joint rotation itself, but by the fact that NASA continued pressing ahead with Shuttle launches with the consent of the Morton-Thiokol management, despite not having found an acceptable fix. Among top officials in both organizations, the O-ring problem became viewed as an acceptable flight risk. In a memo dated July 31, 1985, about six months before the Challenger incident, Boisjoly warned Thiokol’s vice president of Engineering that the O-ring issues were a disaster in the making, ominously predicting that the “result would be catastrophic of the highest order—loss of human life.” Boisjoly’s warnings were ignored. The morning before Challenger’s final flight, the temperature forecast was 30 degrees Fahrenheit, far colder than any previous Shuttle launch. Boisjoly and his engineering colleagues at Thiokol argued that, due to past O-ring performance problems, the temperature posed an unacceptable risk to the safety of the launch. These Cassandras were unable to persuade NASA and Morton-Thiokol’s management, who were under pressure after several previous aborted launch attempts.

After the hearing, surrounded by reporters, Hansen said, “It is time to stop waffling so much and say that the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” The next day his words were the New York Times “Quotation of the Day.”7 We were curious about what it took for Hansen to see global warming first, and in particular, if it required a lot of individual resolve or belief in himself. He referenced the physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman: “Well, I’m not a person who has a great deal of self-confidence. And I’ve considered that an advantage; Feynman says that ‘You have to be very skeptical of any conclusion, especially your own because you are the easiest person to fool.’ Often you start out, you want some answer, you think you know some answer and you try to persuade yourself. You have to question your conclusion and be very skeptical.

A more contemporary Cassandra was the engineer who fought the NASA leadership prior to the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Indeed, the Cassandra Event involving Roger Boisjoly and his attempts to prevent the shuttle launch on that fateful morning in January 1986 has become one of the preeminent case studies in risk management and decision-making ethics. The Challenger disaster stemmed from an inherent flaw in the original design of the solid rocket boosters used to launch the Space Shuttle into orbit. Morton-Thiokol, the company awarded the contract to build the boosters by NASA, had modeled its design on the reliable Titan III rocket. The cylindrical booster sections were manufactured separately, then mounted end-on-end, using O-rings and putty to seal the sections together. However, Morton-Thiokol made several significant changes to the Titan III design to simplify the complicated manufacturing process and cut costs, including changing both the way the sections were mated and the orientation of the O-ring seals.


pages: 561 words: 120,899

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant From Two Centuries of Controversy by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

Bayesian statistics, bioinformatics, British Empire, Claude Shannon: information theory, Daniel Kahneman / Amos Tversky, double helix, Edmond Halley, Fellow of the Royal Society, full text search, Henri Poincaré, Isaac Newton, Johannes Kepler, John Markoff, John Nash: game theory, John von Neumann, linear programming, longitudinal study, meta analysis, meta-analysis, Nate Silver, p-value, Pierre-Simon Laplace, placebo effect, prediction markets, RAND corporation, recommendation engine, Renaissance Technologies, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Robert Mercer, Ronald Reagan, speech recognition, statistical model, stochastic process, Thomas Bayes, Thomas Kuhn: the structure of scientific revolutions, traveling salesman, Turing machine, Turing test, uranium enrichment, Yom Kippur War

In the autumn of 1953, when Jay Orear, one of Fermi’s graduate students, was struggling with a problem involving three unknown quantities, Fermi told him to use a simple analytic method that he called Bayes’ theorem and that he had derived from C. F. Gauss. A year later, when Fermi died at the age of 53, Bayes’ rule lost a stellar supporter in the physical sciences. Fermi was not the only important physicist to use Bayesian methods during this period. A few years later, at Cornell University, Richard Feynman suggested using Bayes’ rule to compare contending theories in physics. Feynman would later dramatize a Bayesian study by blaming rigid O-rings for the Challenger shuttle explosion. During this exciting period in 1950s Chicago, Savage and Allen Wallis founded the university’s statistics department, and Savage attracted a number of young stars in the field. Reading widely, Savage discovered the work of Émile Borel, Frank Ramsey, and Bruno de Finetti from the 1920s and 1930s legitimizing the subjectivity in Bayesian methods.

Because SAC bombers had a monopoly on transporting America’s nuclear arsenal and General LeMay sat at the pinnacle of the world’s military might, RAND’s voice was often influential. By the time Savage visited Santa Monica that summer RAND reports had already challenged some of SAC’s sacred cows. To drop nuclear weapons on Soviet targets, macho air force pilots wanted to fly the new B-52 Strato-fortress jets; RAND recommended fleets of cheaper conventional planes. RAND had also described SAC’s overseas bases for manned bombers as sitting ducks for Soviet attack. A year after Savage’s visit, RAND would challenge Cold War dogma by arguing that victors typically fare better with negotiated settlements than with unconditional surrenders. RAND would even urge counterbalancing LeMay’s B-52s with the navy’s submarine-based missiles. In retaliation, SAC would almost break off relations with RAND on several occasions between Savage’s visit in 1957 and 1961.

During the years when ivory tower theorists thought they had rendered Bayes taboo, it helped start workers’ compensation insurance in the United States; save the Bell Telephone system from the financial panic of 1907; deliver Alfred Dreyfus from a French prison; direct Allied artillery fire and locate German U-boats; and locate earthquake epicenters and deduce (erroneously) that Earth’s core consists of molten iron. Theoretically, Bayes’ rule was verboten. But it could deal with all kinds of data, whether copious or sparse. During the Cold War, Bayes helped find a missing H-bomb and U.S. and Russian submarines; investigate nuclear power plant safety; predict the shuttle Challenger tragedy; demonstrate that smoking causes lung cancer and that high cholesterol causes heart attacks; predict presidential winners on television’s most popular news program, and much more. How could otherwise rational scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians become so obsessed about a theorem that their argument became, as one observer called it, a massive food fight? The answer is simple.


pages: 1,263 words: 371,402

The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection by Gardner Dozois

augmented reality, clean water, computer age, cosmological constant, David Attenborough, Deng Xiaoping, double helix, financial independence, game design, gravity well, jitney, John Harrison: Longitude, Kickstarter, Kuiper Belt, Mahatma Gandhi, mass immigration, orbital mechanics / astrodynamics, Paul Graham, Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman: Challenger O-ring, Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, Skype, stem cell, theory of mind, Turing machine, Turing test, urban renewal, Wall-E

She shouldn’t have come, it was a terrible imposition, and anyway there was probably a rule against aides staying in residents’ apartments, what was she thinking— “Let me get blankets and pillow for the sofa,” Dr. Erdmann finally said, in a voice that still sounded odd to Carrie. “It’s fairly comfortable. For a sofa.” SIX Not possible. The most ridiculous coincidence. That was all—coincidence. Simultaneity was not cause-and-effect. Even the dimmest physics undergraduate knew that. In his mind, Henry heard Richard Feynman say about string theory, “I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation. . . . The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Henry hadn’t liked Feynman, whom he’d met at conferences at Caltech. A buffoon, with his bongo drums and his practical jokes and his lock-picking.

I watched it go; it was only the third human I’d ever encountered in person, and this was the first time one of them had ever used me directly. The experience left me disconcerted for a couple of milliseconds, then I went back to my shopping. I spotted some aluminum tubing which looked strong enough, and grabbed some of those valves, then linked up to Fat Albert to haggle about the price. He was busy waiting on the human, so I got to deal with a not-too-bright personality fragment. I swapped a box of assorted silicone O-rings for the stuff I wanted. Albert himself came on the link just as we sealed the deal. “Hello, Annie. You’re lucky I was distracted,” he said. “Those valves are overruns from the smelter. I got them as salvage.” “Then you shouldn’t be complaining about what I’m giving you for them. Is the human gone?” “Yes. Plugged a bunch of orders into my mind without so much as asking.” “Me too. What’s it doing here?”

And now the AI is learning to speak to us.” It was a way to resolve a ferocious communications challenge. The Eaglets were sending their message to the whole Galaxy; they knew nothing about the intelligence, cultural development, or even the physical form of their audiences. So they sent an all-purpose artificial mind embedded in the information stream itself, able to learn and start a local dialogue with the receivers. This above all else proved to me how smart the Eaglets must be. It didn’t comfort me at all that some commentators pointed out that this “Hoyle strategy” had been anticipated by some human thinkers; it’s one thing to anticipate, another to build. I wondered if those viruses found it a challenge to dumb down their message for creatures capable of only ninth-order Shannon entropy, as we were.