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Not Joking this time
on June 16, 2004
The follow-up to the successful, "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" this book offers four pretty distinct parts.
First section describes how his father taught him to think about the world and his father's ambition to make young Richard a scientist. The end of the book is Feyman's case for the importance of science. In between we get the sad, but sweet story of his first wife and the utterly compelling story of his time on the committee investigating the challenger explosion. It was my favorite part of the book.
The description of how government committees decide facts and make recommendations was eye opening. It was the best description of how these things work that I've ever read. Feynman was constantly up against a committee chairman that wanted to keep everyone in a room asking questions of experts. Feynman didn't like that setup. He wanted to travel out to NASA and talk to engineers, so he did.
Going to Huston and Canaveral, Feynman learned something about the nature of NASA that probably goes for any big organization. He found that NASA was a unified force when their goal was putting a man of the moon. Information was shared freely and appreciated at every level. Once that goal was met NASA became compartmentalized.
Leaders at the top spent their time reassuring Congress that NASA would achieve their goals with low costs and high safety. Engineers at the bottom realized that this wasn't entirely possible. The middle managers didn't want to hear the challenges because they would be forced to report it to the top bosses who didn't want to hear it. It was much easier for top bosses to paint a rosy picture to Congress if they were unaware of the actual challenges of making it work. The end result was that top bosses said that the likelihood of a mission death was 1-100,000 while engineers on the ground felt that the likelihood was more like 1-300.
Feynman concludes that maybe the shuttle program was a bad idea. It could never live up to the ambitious projections of the leaders and the American public was being lied to. NASA should be honest with the American people, Feynman thought, then Congress and voters can decide if they are getting enough for their money. It was a surprisingly thing to hear from an advocate of science and discovery. But Feynam reckoned that the amount of science and discovery has been little compared to the cost. He complained years after the first shuttle launch he still hadn't read any significant experiments in scientific journals.
In all, I liked this book a little better than "Surely You're Joking." It was a little more thought provoking than those fun tales.