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We should ALL care what RPF thinks!
on July 27, 2002
Here is another book of wonderful biographical anecdotes of one of the most intriguing scientists who has ever lived. However, those who are looking for merely a continuing edition of the tremendously popular (not to mention hilarious!) SURELY YOU'RE JOKING MR. FEYNMAN should take note: this present work does not qualify as that.
To be sure, there are a handful of chapters which would fit right into SYJMF. However, 2 major sections cover some exceptionally serious topics which are hardly material for Feynman's typical humor. One section details his love for his first wife as well as her untimely terminal illness. The other covers his work on the commission to disinter the technical problems that led to the explosion of the Space Shuttle CHALLENGER in 1986. These major sections encompass roughly 3/4 of the book.
The chapter on his wife's suffering is especially poignant and touched me very deeply. Feynman was a man whose love and compassion matched his intellect. I could not but feel empathy and admiration for the way he took care of his bride, knowing all along that she would not live long. His decision to be straight with her about her condition, instead of feeding her some fairy-tale story about how she had a good chance of recovery, was both painful and edifying to read.
The section on the CHALLENGER goes into great detail on everything that went wrong that fateful day in '86 as the nation watched the disaster on TV. To this day, I have not seen a television documentary cover this story as I think it should be covered.
I recently saw a special on the CHALLENGER on the DISCOVERY channel. It did an excellent job of focusing on how the engineers at THIOKOL were screaming at NASA not to launch, well into the wee hours of the morning of the catastrophe. However, what the special omitted was the cover-up and closing-of-ranks that NASA did AFTER the accident. To me, NASA's behavior after the fact was even more reprehensible than its carelessness before the launch.
It was for the reason of politics that then-president Ronald Reagan personally requested that Feynman be on-board the investigation committee [a committee that also included the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, among others]. Reagan knew that Feynman would get to the bottom of the matter (which he did) and that Feynman did not care for the politics of making NASA "look good" (which he didn't).
With this in mind, even people who are not interested in Richard Feynman, but are curious about what happened to the CHALLENGER would gain much by reading this book. Feynman explains his thorough, logical methodology and how it rubbed many people the wrong way. His straight-forward and honest disclosures of NASA's gerrymandering created much animosity between himself and NASA exec William Rogers (who, it seems, was more interested in NASA's image than getting to the heart of the matter). For those who are interested in further reading on the CHALLENGER topic, I would recommend NO ORDINARY GENIUS: THE ILLUSTRATED FEYNMAN ...
For Feynman enthusiasts, this book is vintage Feynman - a can't miss. As a bonus, the center of the book has photographs from his life, as well as some of his sketches. The book is equally recommended for people who wonder about what "really" happened to the CHALLENGER, and why it happened. NASA aficionados may be disappointed in the work as it exposes (truthfully) all of the fudge-factors, apathy for safety issues and faulty reasoning NASA used with the efficacy of launching CHALLENGER on time and preserving its positive image after the fact.