Student Model: Book Review

Feynman's Assessment of the Bureacratic Culture at NASA

By Arash Everett Ebrahimi

Spring 2007

Feynman, Richard P. and Ralph Leighton. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Norton, 1985. 350 pp., paper, $13.95. ISBN 0-393-31604-1

Feynman, Richard P. and Ralph Leighton. What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Bantam, 1989. 255 pp., illus. Paper, $12.95. IBSN 0-533-34785-5

Adventures of a Curious Character: Richard P. Feynman and Bureaucracy

Richard P. Feynman is often described as a curious character. A curious character indeed, Richard Feynman was a very energetic physicist who was always getting himself into situation completely outside and beyond physics. But thats just who he was. Feynman had a different outlook on life than most individuals; he had a principle of always staying away from Washington D.C. simply because he took it on principle that was where corruption lived. He often saw the futility in certain aspects of bureaucracy, including his time in the Challenger investigation, as well as on the committee to pick out new math books for the public schools in California. Richard Feynman often saw through a lot of the processes, and because he was able to do this, he was able to cut through some of the red tape and get further than some of his colleagues. I therefore believe Feynman is fair in his negative analysis of the bureaucratic situation at N.A.S.A., which led him to discover things that many didnt want him to discover.

Surely your joking, Mr. Feynman! is the first of two autobiographical books written by Richard Feynman with Ralph Leighton. Surely Youre Joking, Mr. Feynman! takes us through his early years at Far Rockaway, his hometown, through M.I.T. to Princeton. The third section talks about his time challenging authority at Los Alamos as well as his safe cracking ability. Continuing on, part four brings out his time at Cornell, Caltech, and several sojourns to Brazil. During this time Feynman learned to play the Bongo drums, continuing to play them throughout his life. The last section of the book speaks about his winning the Noble Prize, elevating him to celebrity status, which he did not like. Part five also describes what he legitimately titled the World of One Physicist, taking us through his several accomplishments in the field of physics and beyond. To end the book, Cargo Cult Science is a piece culled from his 1974 commencement speech at Caltech. Cargo Cult Science tells about how Brazilian physics students were not learning their subject, but merely memorizing equations or ideas without knowing how to apply them.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? is the second of the two autobiographical books. This book, however, was put together and published after his death from tapes of conversations between him and Leighton, and copyrighted by his third wife, Gweneth, and Leighton. The book is a collection of different stories all from different periods of Feynmans life. Both What Do You Care What Other People Think? and his first autobiography take us through his early years though with a different degree of detail. Part One of this second book shows Richard Feynman from a different angle. We go from a chapter about his first wife, Arlene, during his time at Los Alamos, to a trip to Japan he took to participate as chairman of a conference at Kyoto University. Part Two takes us to his time on the committee to investigate the Challenger accident. In this Feynman describes how he hates visiting Washington D.C., calling it, committing suicide. Feynman demonstrates how the chairman actually tried to hide facts from him, and when Feynman submitted his report, the chairman decided to omit it altogether. Feynman persevered and his report was eventually included, but only tagged on as an appendix.

William Graham, head of N.A.S.A., first asked Richard P. Feynman to commit suicide about a week after the Challenger disaster. Again, suicide, as seen from Feynmans point of view meant heading to Washington D.C. to be on some bureaucratic committee that would take years to inquire about the disaster and in the process get so off topic that no conclusions would ever be published. While he was pleased to discover that the committees scope had been narrowed to two purposes and its time period had been narrowed to only 120 days, Feynman was discouraged when he finally arrived at the committee ready to work only to find out that no work would actually begin for a whole month.

Feynman explains that even as he was proposing things the committee could do to expedite the process, the chairman Mr. Rogers, interrupted once with his secretary coming in and a second time as he brought the meeting to an abrupt close. It was as if Mr. Rogers really didnt want Feynman, or the committee for that matter, to find any cause for the accident. It seemed to Feynman that the whole committee was just a political scheme to console the public about the accident. This kind of bureaucratic shut down is shown again when the committee is given a whole week to do nothing. As Feynman had come to D.C. to work, he needed to work. To that end he called Bill Graham who had David Acheson, the number two guy on the committee, call Mr. Rogers and ask if Feynman could go to the Johnson Space Center. Acheson called Feynman back with the response: I think its a great idea, and I told Mr. Rogers so, but he says no. I just dont know why I cant convince him (WDYC).

Feynman also states indirectly that the management at N.A.S.A. also held a guilty hand. As well, official management claims to believe the probability of failure is a thousand times less. One reason for this may be an attempt to ensure the government of N.A.S.A.s perfection and success in order to ensure the supply of funds. (WDYC 236). If a company is being paid to complete a certain job safely, and several people die, the company should not expect more funds to continue pouring in, unless they investigate what went wrong in the first place and fix it. In the case of N.A.S.A. and the Challenger accident, clearly something had gone wrong.

As Feynman later concludes in his Inflamed Appendix, N.A.S.A. knew that there were problems in many aspects of the space shuttle program, but in order to save face with the government and to continue receiving funding, N.A.S.A.s management simply said, It flew before, it will fly again. To this, I agree with Feynmans response of when playing Russian Roulette, the face that the first shot got off safely is of little comfort for the next. (WDYC, An Inflamed Appendix). Now, Feynman has stated his feeling that N.A.S.A. as well as the committee was involved in some corrupt practices within the bureaucratic system. So to conclude, after hearing the evidence that Feynman brings to our attention, I do not believe that anybody could agree more. Certainly the management at N.A.S.A. had been lying when they said they thought the shuttle program was stable. As well, Mr. Rogers, as we have seen, actively tried to find ways to stop the curious character from finding the truth which the committee was supposed to be finding. I believe that Richard Feynman, the curious character, was more than fair in his conclusions regarding the corruptness in N.A.S.A. as well as the committee chairman, Mr. Rogers. Without Feynman we might never have found out what really happened to the Challenger on that frightful day.

Both of the books contain interesting adventures of a curious character. I believe that these books are entertaining, to say the least, and should be read by anyone with a free afternoon. Of course, there are other aspects to Feynmans books. To name a few, the books contain his views towards the false security at Los Alamos, his assertive attitude towards the painter in the chapter Mixing Paints, as well as his time as a professional artist in But is it Art? These chapters are both highly entertaining and highly educational. Using these books to teach young adults the facts of life is another important use of them. Whether it is advice on how and where to travel or his exposure of what is false learning and going through the motions of things without actually accomplishing anything in Cargo Cult Science, Richard Feynman is truly one of a kind. And, because we have only his words to guide us through our lives, I would recommend that everyone read his books to find their way to becoming a true individual.

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