16. Knowledge

Richard Feynman was the curious character known outside the scientific community as the man who discovered the cause for the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. A Nobel Prize recipient, Feynman served on the commission to investigate the explosion and uncovered the causal clues of the tragedy by dipping pieces of rubber gasket material into a glass of ice water.


The gasket was one among many of the possible culprits for the explosion. Its purpose was to seal a main joint on the shuttle’s fuel tank. Film documents some of the commission’s proceedings and shows that while most members seemed to have their heads buried in the technical and analytical data, Feynman was considering some of the more obvious things. He was doing as a child might do, seeing what would happen if the rubber was dipped into freezing cold water.


Fenyman’s reasoning was simple: It was unusually cold on the morning of the launch, so maybe that had something to do with cause of the explosion. By dipping the rubber into the ice water, he was simulating conditions of that morning and discovering the effects of low temperature on the material. And to everyone’s surprise, but in typical Feynman style, his tact proved successful. The final cause of the explosion was determined to be the gasket’s loss of elasticity at low temperatures. 


Feynman’s unusual style of thinking and teaching made him one of the world’s most popular figures for softening the complexities of physics and opening up that branch of knowledge for the average person. He wrote a great many books explaining, in common language, some of the most complex theories of physics, and he opened the doors of knowledge for people with basic questions.


Day 16 Guide


We are fortunate in this time to have so many ways to relieve of the complexities of knowledge. We have only to be curious in order to start a life-long journey of learning. So where does that journey begin for you? What are your interests? What more would you like to know?


Today try to identify areas of interest that you’d like to know more about; the local bookstore is a great place to start. There you can shuffle through all kinds of ideas while enjoying a cup of coffee.


 © 2004, Levi Hill

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