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BBC celebrates Richard Feynman

By Hamish Johnston

William Hurt

William Hurt stars as Richard Feynman in the BBC2 drama The Challenger.

The BBC and the Open University have teamed up to produce two television programmes about Richard Feynman – the Nobel-prize-winning scientist who died 25 years ago.

Outside of the physics community, Feynman is probably best known for his diligent and outspoken role in the investigation into the causes of the Challenger disaster.

Like many of my generation, I can remember exactly where I was when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off on 28 January 1986: it was a snowy Tuesday in Guelph, Ontario, and for some reason I was still at home at 11.39 a.m. when the accident occurred.

I say accident, but the Rogers Commission that investigated the crash reported that design faults and communication failures were partly to blame for the disaster – which claimed the lives of all seven crew members on-board Challenger.

Feynman was a member of the commission, and during a televised hearing he famously immersed an O-ring in a glass of ice water to show how it would fail in the extremely cold temperatures experienced on launch day. This failure was linked directly to the explosion and this demonstration is one of the enduring images of the Challenger legacy.

Feynman was not the first to realize that the low-temperature failure of an O-ring was the likely cause of the explosion. The Morton Thiokol engineers responsible for the booster rocket were apparently aware of the problem and had recommended against a launch that morning – but they were reputedly overruled by their superiors.

While Feynman’s ice-water demonstration may have been pure theatre, he was so concerned about how NASA dealt with the risks of spaceflight that he insisted on writing his own independent addendum to the Rogers report. In it, he accuses senior NASA management of either being unaware – or of ignoring – the engineers’ concerns about safety.

The Challenger is the title of a “factual drama” about Feynman’s role in the Rogers Commission that will be broadcast on Monday 18 March at  9.00 p.m. on BBC2. Produced in partnership with the UK’s Open University, the programme stars William Hurt as Feynman. Then later this year the BBC will broadcast a documentary about Feynman’s life.

Feynman is one of only a handful of physicists whose lives have been the subject of hagiography. In Feynman’s case, his bongo playing, nude sunbathing and other more risqué behaviour are all seen as part of his maverick genius. It will be interesting to see if this creeps into either programme.

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  1. M. Asghar

    The double slit experiment wrongly presented as just Feynman’s thought experimen(though it has been run since a long time as pointed out in the comments)during the last two days and now his story of the Challenger disaster, seems to be a deliberate effort to mythify the person. Well, this not a healthy development for science.

    • Carl

      Similarly, Einstein is given credit as the inventor of special relativity, when it was clearly Lorentz. Where are the “Einstein transformations”.

      Clearly science and science journalism are not the same.

      • M. Asghar

        Clearly the Lorentz transformation relations linking two referentials is fundamental, because it set up the spacetime structure. It showed that simultaneity is not absolute, but operational in nature. However, the elucidation of the proper time, when dealing with the relative motion in two referentials via the process of time dilation is due to Einstein based on the absolute speed of light in vacuum.

      • reader01

        I am not physicist. But maybe exist some transformations ( Einsteins ) in his Gravity theory. Einstein must prove that Lorentz transformations are valid in his General relativity.

      • Marco M.

        This is nonsense. Einstein understood that the Lorentz transformations refer to space-time transformations, not actual body compressions, for example, as Lorentz and others thought. The special theory of relativity is Einstein’s work, period.

  2. Hamish Johnston

    Yes, they are not the same. In my view scientists often have an unhealthy obsession with who did what first — science journalists and the general public are much more interested in the science itself.

    Surely the intellectual concepts of relativity are much more important than to whom they are attributed to. Whether it was Lorentz or Einstein is a matter for the historians (and hagiographers) and has no bearing on how physics is done today.

    • M. Asghar

      Due credit and acknowledgement is normal, but it is overdoing for some ulterior interests that is unhealthy.

    • Carl

      Very true.

      As I said Science and science journalism are different animals.

      Einstein added the “what if” process to Lorentz’s work. “On the shoulders of giants”.

    • Peerally

      Poincare and Lorentz both had notions of effects of velocity on transformations but in a manner which, if Einstein did not intervene, would have been of little use scientifically subsequently. Einstein, when still very young, had the right intuition at the right time, in a very convincing manner and his SR is still of immense value to many practical issues. However both his SR and GR are quite problematic when it concerns quantum theory and it has been so often brought out that it has not been possible so far to combine them into one meaningful concept. The snag here is not quantum theory but aspects of SR and GR, without these affecting SR and GR for many aspects of motion and relativistic effects. Actually both SR and GR as I will show subsequently could be very similar quantum wise and once we know the quantum basis of relativistic effects we will then be in a position to solve many realties which currently are elusive.

  3. John Duffield

    I watched the program, and really enjoyed it. I’m glad it had the lecture-theatre scene where he told the students not to write down the potential/kinetic energy expressions, and instead said you have to understand it, then swung the bowling ball. That sort of thing is why I’m a “Feynman fan”. Here’s a little video of Feynman talking about his Challenger experience.

  4. reader01

    What kind is the wave? Only quantum? I suppose we should find such description of relativistic wave that is suitable for explanation of dubble slit experiment. Or maybe both quantum relativistic wave. Wave can be desribed as relativistic physical identity. But as I wrote we should find the right and suitable description.

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