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The Remarkable Dr. Feynman : Caltech's Eccentric Richard P. Feynman Is a Nobel Laureate, a Member of the Shuttle Commission, and Arguably the World's Best Theoretical Physicist

April 20, 1986|LAWRENCE GROBEL | Lawrence Grobel's book, "Conversations With Capote," has recently been published in paperback

One day last February, on a brightly lit stage in a large hall of the State Department in Washington, a distinguished panel of presidential appointees was conducting its investigation into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The line of inquiry had turned to the effects that cold weather may have had on the launch. While an expert from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was delivering his lengthy testimony, one of the commission members, Caltech professor and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, quietly beckoned to a NASA aide and made an odd request: He asked for a glass of ice water and a small vise. With the hearing still in progress, and under the glare of nationwide television coverage, Feynman removed a synthetic rubber O-ring from a model the witness had brought, screwed the ring into the vice and dipped the apparatus into the ice water. He pulled it out, took off the vise, and watched the O-ring bounce back into shape.

He then announced the results of his "little experiment": The O-ring had sprung back less quickly after it had been exposed to the ice water than before--evidence, he suggested, that cold weather may have affected the resilience of the rings, which act as seals between segments of the shuttle's rocket boosters, preventing hot propellant from being forced through the seams during a launch.

That graphic piece of theater made his point--and it was vintage Feynman. As he later said, NASA had certainly conducted many sophisticated experiments on O-rings and cold weather, but he just had to see for himself.

When William R. Graham, the acting administrator of NASA, was asked by President Reagan to help select prominent Americans to serve on the commission to investigate what went wrong with the Challenger, it didn't take much inspiration to come up with such names as space pioneers Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and former Secretary of State William P. Rogers. But the choice of Feynman came as a surprise, at least to those few people who even knew who he was. If Feynman is known at all to mainstream Americans, it is most likely because of his quirky, iconoclastic book of autobiographical stories , "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"--a book in which Feynman reveals, among other things, that he was rejected by his draft board as mentally incompetent and that he once testified in a court case on behalf of a topless bar that he admitted frequenting "five, six times a week."

But perhaps the person most surprised by Feynman's selection was Feynman himself. "Why me?" he asked when Graham telephoned.

"Because," Graham said, "I've been attending lectures by you for 15 years, first as a student at Caltech, then when I was at Hughes Aircraft and you'd sometimes lecture there. I figured the commission could use a guy like you."

What Graham no doubt meant was that, while Feynman is considered by many to be the leading theoretical physicist in the world today, he is not your ordinary ivory-tower academic, but a rather extraordinary man with a forceful personality and a penchant for separating fact from fiction, truth from hearsay and the possible from the improbable. Feynman may have been chosen partly because of his Nobel Prize, but he also brings other valuable, practical traits to the job, among them an incisive intellect, a perpetual inquisitiveness, a sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd. In other words, he would be a good guy to weed out a lot of the nonsense the shuttle commission could be expected to hear over the three months of its inquiry. With Feynman, Graham felt that the scientific community was appropriately represented.

In many ways, however, it was also an odd choice. Feynman has a notorious and highly developed aversion to bureaucracies, formalities, committee thinking and beating around the bush, all of which he could expect to find in the course of the commission's inquiry. Accepting such an appointment, then, ran deeply against his grain. It would also mean interrupting his teaching and research. Feynman said he wanted to think about it.

"I've always thought that Washington was a can of worms crawling all over each other," Feynman says, "and I didn't want to end up in that can. But I felt that maybe this was more serious--it was important for the country to figure out as quickly as possible what went wrong and get this straightened out. So I called up a few friends who advised me that that indeed was right and I shouldn't play games, I should do it. And finally, my wife said she thought I ought to do it, so I did. I said, 'OK, I'm going to commit suicide now,' and I called Graham and said I'd do it."

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