Saturday, October 31, 2020

Thinking About Science: Feynman's Cal Tech Commencement Address "Cargo Cult Science".

For guidance I often seek out a bongo drummer-slash-raconteur.
We post this once a year, usually around Nobel Prize time.
Here's the musician riffing on science:

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas--which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked--or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO's, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I've concluded that it's not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I'm overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it's a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn't realize how MUCH there was.

At Esalen there are some large baths fed by hot springs situated on a ledge about thirty feet above the ocean. One of my most pleasurable experiences has been to sit in one of those baths and watch the waves crashing onto the rocky slope below, to gaze into the clear blue sky above, and to study a beautiful nude as she quietly appears and settles into the bath with me.

One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude woman?"
I'm trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, "I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?" "Sure," she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby. I think to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!" He starts to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it," he says. "I feel a kind of dent--is that the pituitary?" I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!" They looked at me, horrified--I had blown my cover--and said, "It's reflexology!" I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating....MUCH MORE 
Long time readers will recognize the words of the bongo drummer as amateur magician and author, Richard Feynman.
He was also a safecracker and lockpick.
He invented the word nanotechnology.
In 1965 he was awarded the Nobel prize in physics for his work in quantum eletrodynamics.
The above snip is from his 1974 Cal Tech commencement address "Cargo Cult Science".

Although Feynman loved to tell jokes the number of jokes about Feynman is rather small.
Here's one he would have liked:
Feynman joke (okay, a bit deep)

If Richard Feynman applied for a job at Microsoft

Interviewer: "Now comes the part of the interview where we ask a question to test your creative thinking ability. Don't think too hard about it, just apply everyday common sense, and describe your reasoning process."

"Here's the question: Why are manhole covers round?"

Feynman: "They're not. Some manhole covers are square. It's true that there are SOME round ones, but I've seen square ones, and rectangular ones."

Interviewer: "But just considering the round ones, why are they round?"

Feynman: "If we are just considering the round ones, then they are round by definition. That statement is a tautology."

Interviewer: "I mean, why are there round ones at all? Is there some particular value to having round ones?"

Feynman: "Yes. Round covers are used when the hole they are covering up is also round. It's simplest to cover a round hole with a round cover."

Interviewer: "Can you think of a property of round covers that gives them an advantage over square ones?"

Feynman: "We have to look at what is under the cover to answer that question. The hole below the cover is round because a cylinder is the strongest shape against the compression of the earth around it. Also, the term "manhole" implies a passage big enough for a man, and a human being climbing down a ladder is roughly circular in cross-section. So a cylindrical pipe is the natural shape for manholes. The covers are simply the shape needed to cover up a cylinder."

Interviewer: "Do you believe there is a safety issue? I mean, couldn't square covers fall into the hole and hurt someone?"

Feynman: "Not likely. Square covers are sometimes used on prefabricated vaults where the access passage is also square. The cover is larger than the passage, and sits on a ledge that supports it along the entire perimeter. The covers are usually made of solid metal and are very heavy. Let's assume a two-foot square opening and a ledge width of 1-1/2 inches. In order to get it to fall in, you would have to lift one side of the cover, then rotate it 30 degrees so that the cover would clear the ledge, and then tilt the cover up nearly 45 degrees from horizontal before the center of gravity would shift enough for it to fall in. Yes, it's possible, but very unlikely. The people authorized to open manhole covers could easily be trained to do it safely. Applying common engineering sense, the shape of a manhole cover is entirely determined by the shape of the opening it is intended to cover."

Interviewer (troubled): "Excuse me a moment; I have to discuss something with my management team."

(Leaves room.)
(Interviewer returns after 10 minutes)

Interviewer: "We are going to recommend you for immediate hiring into the marketing department."