Thursday, 3 December 2009

Feynman looks at the blueprints

The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out is a collection of Richard Feynman’s short works. Perhaps the most famous of these is his 1974 Caltech Commencement Address on Cargo Cult Science. My personal favourite there is Los Alamos from Below (slightly different version of this lecture appears here).
How do you look at a plant that ain’t built yet? I don’t know. So I go into this room with these fellows. There was always a Lieutenant Zumwalt that was always coming around with me, taking care of me, you know; I had to have an escort everywhere. So he goes with me, he takes me into this room and there are these two engineers and a loooooooong table, great big long table, tremendous table, covered with a blueprint that’s as big as the table; not one blueprint, but a stack of blueprints. I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I wasn’t too good at reading blueprints. So they start to explain it to me because they thought I was a genius.
The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works Of Richard Feynman (Helix Books)
And they start out, “Mr. Feynman, we would like you to understand, the plant is so designed, you see one of the things we had to avoid in the plant was accumulation.” Problems like — there’s an evaporator working which is trying to accumulate the stuff; if the valve gets stuck or something like that and they accumulate too much stuff, it’ll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that no one valve, if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.

So then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp, from the blueprints, down, up, down, up, very fast talking explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.

I’m completely dazed, worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think it’s a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. Lines with this damn square, lines with the damn square. I think it’s a window; no, it can’t be a window, ’cause it ain’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this — you didn’t ask them right away, right away it would have been OK. But they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, what are you wasting my time all this time for? I don’t know what to do. You are not going to believe this story, but I swear it’s absolutely true; it’s such sensational luck. I thought what am I going to do, what am I going to do????? I got an idea. Maybe it’s a valve? So, in order to find out whether it’s a valve or not I take my finger and I put it down in the middle of one of the blueprints on page number 3 down in the end and I said, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”

So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck,” and they go up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other and they turn around to me and they open their mouths — “You’re absolutely right, sir.”

So they roll up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Lt. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,“ he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic, I want to know how, how do you do that?” I told him, you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment