Even a genius should recognize when he’s wrong

Contributing WriterDecember 28, 2013 

Richard Feynman, one of the smartest humans who ever called this planet home, laughed almost joyfully at a mistake he made. He was trying to help NASA uncover the cause of the 1986 crash of space shuttle Challenger that killed all seven aboard.

A new Science/Discovery Channel movie on the subject, starring William Hurt as Feynman, was broadcast in November and, presumably, will be available one day soon on DVD.

I was startled at first when I saw the movie Feynman laughing at his mistake. By his own admission, he had a large ego. And he had the most infuriating kind of conceit. He really was as smart as he thought he was.

He was a colleague of Einstein and, like Einstein, won a Nobel Prize for physics. The measure of his mind is that people like me can barely understand a fraction of what his work was about.

Unlike that lost-in-space Einstein, Feynman had a down-to-earth side. He loved to play the bongos. He liked a drink. And during courting years in later life, he enjoyed the company of women, especially if they liked bongo rhythms.

Fundamentally, he was a good person. Early in life, he married his childhood sweetheart, knowing she had a terminal disease. He loved her in ways deep as the universe, and he became her constant nurse as she lay dying.

As a teacher, he had a gift for translating his complex knowledge into words that anyone could understand. His students adored him. He was their rock star. His classes were packed. His lectures were published and read by curious fans who never made it into his classes.

(You can find Feynman’s witty interviews and lectures on YouTube. Books about him include chatty, funny books he wrote. For instance, “Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” One of the best books about him is “Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life” by Leonard Mlodinow, an admirer of the professor. )

Feynman was the great explainer. And so it was that he explained in a way anyone could understand what killed the Challenger seven and brought NASA to its knees. While dying of cancer, he took the time and had the genius to locate Challenger’s smoking gun.

His first guess was mistaken. But he laughed — at himself. Not so smart after all, Doctor Feynman.

He made up for that by eventually discovering, almost single-handedly, what had happened. An O-ring — kind of a fancy rubber-like gasket — failed at low temperatures, allowing the lethal explosion.

He laughed at himself when his first conclusion was wrong because he believed he had it coming. And he seemed almost happy to discover he was wrong. He was the ultimate scientist, well aware that there were hundreds of potential reasons for the explosion, and he had crossed off another one, gradually narrowing the hunt.

That is the way of ethical, serious scientists. They keep experimenting — and failing. They try this and they try that until they strike pay dirt — or a cold O-ring.

A scientist must watch himself. As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Refusing to recognize you are wrong is a common failing in many professions. Whether it’s police officers or prosecuting attorneys or medical doctors or investigative reporters, it’s heartbreaking to beat your brains out for months or years and then admit to yourself that you have been wrong.

Innocent people have been executed because some law enforcement personnel lacked the grit to admit they were wrong.

Richard Feynman was better than that, much better. And of course, he was also far better on the bongos than most of us.

Contact columnist Bill Hall at wilberth@cableone.net or 1012 Prospect Ave., Lewiston, ID 83501.

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