Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Do You Care What Other People Think? - Richard Feynman

Yet another book that documents the life of one, if not the only colorful scientist of recent years, What Do You Care What Other People Think? is a 200+ page refreshing read. The book has 2 parts to it, the first covering anecdotes and letters from Feynman's life, including a touching story of his first wife Arlene, who succumbed to tuberculosis quite early in Feynman's life. The second half covers Feynman's involvement in the Rogers Commission, that was formed in 1986 to investigate the Challenger space shuttle incident. The penultimate chapter of the book includes Feynman's report in the Rogers Commission - a frank and candid assessment of the shuttle program and NASA that went out as an appendix in the main report that was submitted to the White House.

The first half of the book makes the reader feel that this is a continuation of the book "Surely Your're Joking". I would agree it is (I have read only half of the SYJ book), but personally I felt the best part of the book was the second half - Feynman's involvement in the Shuttle accident probe. Feynman covers a variety of topics in the first half like his impression of Post-war Poland and his paranoia of being bugged at his Warsaw hotel, his Dad's influence in learning the "scientific" way (knowing the principles rather than the name), his struggles as Arlene - his first wife goes through tuberculosis and her death, his experiences in Japan and so on. It also includes letters written to his family and also letters written by others about him.

In the second part of the book, Feynman gives a detailed description of the Rogers Commission, where he was one of the Commissioners along with people like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride. His meticulous investigation methods are impressive as he explains the parts of the shuttle and the problems with the rubber O-rings in the booster rocket field joints that were most probably responsible for the disaster. Feynman, an exponent of the scientific method carries out experiments with pieces of rubber removed from the booster rocket field joints to demonstrate his point on how lower temperatures during launch might have caused fuel leakage on the shuttle.

When involved in the probe, Feynman discovers many irregularities, communication roadblocks and poor administration in NASA. His report observes the following 1) Though the failure probabilities of the O-rings was known to be 1 in a 100 (0.01) (estimated by the O-ring vendor and by the ground engineers at NASA), NASA allowed usage of the O-rings, with the management insisting that the failure probability was 1 in a 100000. NASA was taking it's chances as nothing other than minor incidents had occurred with the use of the O-rings thus far. 2) The shuttle engines are built top down making it very expensive to change and increasing the maintenance overheads of the engines. Feynman argues that for critical parts like the engine, a bottom up approach needs to be taken and robustness of all the components must be ensured before assembly. An aircraft engine is designed bottoms up. 3) Feynman is pretty impressed with the Avionics group of NASA, who build the software for their missions. He commends their methods, the rigorous tests the software is put through at various stages and the redundancy that is built into the shuttle. However, he is not happy with the shuttle's obsolete hardware and the downsizing of testing infrastructure and resources for the software units by NASA. In all of the above points, NASA was trying to save costs by reducing investments in the same safety nets that had made their mission successful so far. For example, the avionics onboard the shuttle was immaculate because of the rigorous tests involved and NASA wanted to downsize the tests themselves.

The book concludes with one of Feynman's lectures on the "Value of Science". The essence is similar to the lectures in the book "The meaning of it all" like the importance of doubt and how social problems are harder than scientific ones.

Overall a weekend read that gives you a peek into the working of America's premier space agency of the 80s.
"To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell."

No comments: