What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Having read James Gleick’s book ‘Genius’ I’d discovered the fascinating work and life of Richard Feynman and was keen to learn more. This is the second of two books Feynman wrote. I happened to come across this book first and perhaps I’ve read them in the wrong order, no matter.
The book is autobiographical, but in a typical spirit of nonconformity is not a biography. Rather it is a collection of anecdotes written about episodes in Feynman's life. The first half of the book is a selection of these short stories, in no particular order, each describing in a matter of fact fashion an aspect of Feynman’s life. Each as a side effect provides an insight to his thinking and attitude to life and learning. Clearly this material was a key resource for James Gleick’s work and I had the feeling that these were stories which didn’t find their way into Feynman’s previous book ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman’. As a consequence Gleick’s book provides a more rounded and complete picture which ties these snippets together. However Feynman’s book has more to offer.
The second half of the book has a detailed account of the work on investigating the cause of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. This description will be of interest to anyone who wants to find out the technical details of just what went wrong, but more interestingly has some fascinating insights into the afflictions that can infect the thinking of large organisations. In the case of NASA this led to mistaken understanding of safety and risk, which when compounded by poor communication between management and staff created a widespread blind spot, which extended well outside NASA, about the challenge and dangers of space flight. There are lessons here for any organisation, which even if they don’t surface as safety issues, will undoubtedly have impacts in some aspect of the organisation’s performance.
For example a story which sticks in my mind involves the reusable solid rocket boosters, which were at the root of the disaster. After each flight these would fall into the sea, be retrieved and refurbished for reuse. These rockets were 12 feet across and built in several tubular sections each around 40 feet long which had to be placed on top of each other and bolted together using 180 bolts. It was found that in joining these sections, quite naturally given their use, the sections would not be perfectly circular. On occasion this called for the use of a giant press which would squeeze the section to shape across a diameter that was oversize. To do this the workers had to ensure that the press was applied directly 180 degrees across the diameter. They would do this by counting 90 of the 180 holes used to join the sections together. With such a large structure, this meant a fair amount of climbing and there was the possibility of mistakes by miscounting and subsequent damage to the rocket. The workers came up with a solution - apply paint marks to four of the holes, each at 90 degree spacing. Now instead of having to count 90 holes, you simply have to count to and from the nearest paint mark to ensure the holes you select are 180 degrees apart. The probability of a mistake is dramatically reduced.
Feynman goes on to describe his incredulity at this solution being rejected by management as being too expensive! He learns however that it’s not the cost of the paint, but the cost of changing the manuals that describe the procedures, that prevents this improvement.
I fear that there are many organisations where these penalties of getting better make their management systems a ball and chain for the organisation.
On a personal note, I’ve left the best bit of the book until last, appropriately because it is the last nine pages. Here is reproduced a public address given in 1955 to the National Academy of Sciences titled ‘The Value of Science’. If you’ve read elsewhere of my work on Explorers and Day-trippers and the approach to change, here Feynman gives a brilliant description of the absolute and essential role of exploration in creating advance, and the fact that non-scientists have little comprehension of the real learning process by which this advance is made. For me this short concluding section of the book was worth the price alone.
It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of this freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.
The concluding paragraph of the book.
In short, if you want to find out about Feynman, Genius is a more complete read, having read that you may be inspired to read this book to find out more. However if you want to learn of lessons from the Challenger disaster, or simply read the description of exploration in ‘The Value of Science’,this is a book well worth reading.
Steve Unwin September 4 2004
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