Lawrence Krauss – Quantum Man

March 28, 2011

Physicist Lawrence Krauss has written numerous popular books about science, including the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek.

But now he’s tried something different—penning a scientific biography of the famed Nobel Prize winning physicist (and infamous bon vivant) Richard Feynman.

The resulting book, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, is a fascinating look at the scientific innovations of this larger-than-life figure—a man who also revolutionized physics teaching at Caltech, played a central role in investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and was notorious for hanging out in strip clubs and playing the bongos.

So Point of Inquiry reached Krauss to learn what writing this book was like, and what he learned about Feynman, and about physics at the very highest level, in the process.

Lawrence Krauss is an internationally known theoretical physicist and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He’s published hundreds of scientific papers as well as numerous popular books, including The Physics of Star Trek, Fear of Physics, and The Fifth Essence.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 28, 2011. Welcome the point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. Richard Feynman was an acclaimed theoretical physicist. But that’s not all we remember him for. We remember him for the Feynman lectures at Caltech. And we remember him for famously getting to the bottom of the space shuttle Challenger disaster. And far from the cliche of the straight laced, socially challenged scientist, remember, Feynman is a guy who hung out in strip clubs and played some serious bongos. Just listen. 

They got that kind of audience cheers. 

Seriously, that was Richard Feynman. He really, really wants his orange juice. Thanks to this mythos, it can be hard to recover Fineman, the scientist. But that’s what Lawrence Krauss has attempted in Quantum Man. A newly released scientific biography. Krauss’s, an internationally known theoretical physicist, as well as a popular author. He’s published hundreds of scientific papers, but also claimed books like the bestselling The Physics of Star Trek and Fear of Physics. He is director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. Lawrence Krauss, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Well, thanks. It’s nice to be here. 

It’s good to have you. You’ve written many wonderful books about physics, but this time around with your new book, you’ve taken a bit of a departure and done a scientific biography, albeit of a great physicist, Richard Feynman. What took you in this direction? 

Well, yeah, a biography is totally new for me. And it was it was a challenge, but the opportunity was was irresistible. I was asked to do this book. It’s part of a series called Great Discoveries, which is had had a series of books by basically pretty good authors on on famous scientists throughout the ages. And when I was asked to consider doing the book on Simon, I was both honored and excited because, of course, Simon is kind of an idol for all office assistant, maybe all scientists. And it also, I figured, would afforded me the opportunity to do something I wouldn’t have done otherwise, which was to read all his papers. I think the public people tend to think that, you know, you go back to the original literature, but that’s not the way science is usually done, because things get refined and read, suppressed and understood in new ways over time. And so you don’t often go back to the original papers because they’re usually obtuse and and and reflect a kind of the original preliminary thinking which gets refined. And so it was exciting for me just to go back and read all his papers. I thought it would be them a motivation to that. It turned out to be a lot more work than that, but it was exciting. And and the other thing was that you’ll find it has become a public personality because of it is the anecdotal biographies of him and reminiscences by him and the Challenger disaster. And so the public knows of him as this incredibly charismatic, curious character. But what they don’t know is why he’s an idol for scientists. And I thought I wanted to try a new type of a type of biography, at least new for me and I haven’t really seen before. One written by scientists weren’t really. I used the arc of his life to explain the science. So his exciting life is really a hook that allowed me to explain his science. And why face science? Well, if you look at the areas he worked on, basically almost all the important areas in 20 to 21st century physics where he played made seminal contributions to. So it allowed me a chance to expose people to really the physics of the 21st century using Richard Feynman as as as a hawk, if you wish. And so the challenge was to weave his life and his science. But I think what I’m particularly psyched about it is the fact that that that I’ve been able to explain the science in a way that I think is fun and interesting and useful. And for me to actually was actually very insightful for me to learn about some of this work. And the other thing that I think is fun is that apparently physicists are getting something out of it. I think they’re new insights. They’re not just for the public, but for scientists as well. 

Is there anything in his papers when you went over this new body of work that really surprised you or that you did not expect to find? 

Yeah. For me, there were there were intellectual nuggets that I hadn’t expected to find at all. I mean, besides seeing of the incredibly interesting ways he used to explain complicated concepts, what I discovered. One of the things that he did after he did the work for which you won the Nobel Prize, which is really began. And the reason the book is called Quantum Man is what climate really did was was redefine quantum mechanics, give a new way of thinking about quantum mechanics, which is now the modern way, which didn’t exist before he invented it. And and so a lot of the book is spent talking about how he developed that idea and then used it to do it to eventually allowed to do Nobel Prize winning work, explaining the fundamental structure of matter. But right after that, he switched and went to LA, went through an entirely different field of the field of low temperature, physics, superconductivity and super fluidity. And he actually he actually created really the first principles, explanation of super fluidity. And it seems so removed from what he’d done in elementary particle physics and try to understand the behavior of an esoteric level, the behavior of elementary particles. But what I discovered is that there’s a sort of continual threat thread in his life of of trying to take complex very well. You call strongly interacting system systems with where things are interacting so strongly. It doesn’t look like you can disentangle the physics and figure out a simple way to understand it. And and with liquid helium. He’s playing super fluidity in a in a bufalo talking about how he’s strongly attracting atoms, can be treated as if they’re not interacting at all by kind of a few tricks. And then if you look 25 years later, he was one of the first people to show how you can understand the behavior. Quarks inside protons, which again, are a principle very strongly interacting elementary particles as if they’re not interacting at all. And and in fact, I could see that. I could see if you look at the papers from liquid helium, you could see that he’s talking about liquid helium. But what he says is, you know, the situation with elementary particle. With new is is so complicated, we can’t understand it at all. The experimental data is very confusing and it’s premature to try and understand it. But liquid helium, there’s lots of good experiments there and maybe we can use the ideas that are developed here later. Larum in understanding elementary particle physics. And that’s precisely what he did about 25 years later. And I’ve never seen that connection made. So for me, that was pretty exciting. 

And you also you knew him a little, right? You relate that one of your experiences with Fine and was hanging out in bars in Vancouver, which seems kind of appropriate given the bon vivant that you explain that he was. 

Yeah. No, I in fact, I was probably more a little more scared about them than in reality in terms of how we met. But I guess I said it is a fact that I was that, you know, I was an undergraduate. And we did hang out at bars and he actually taught me to dance. So I don’t think I said in the book, I’m not sure if I if I had the courage to say that or not. 

Now, breaking news. Yeah. Breaking news. Yes. 

So when when it when when you see me dancing on YouTube, which I hope will never happen, you know, you can you can blame Richard Feynman. But because I was there with a with my girlfriend at the time and he was very happy to spend time with us and and and we had a fun time. He was anyway was you can imagine as an undergraduate who was a wonderful experience and and an amazing one. And and then and then fortunately, later on, as I became a professional physicist, I, I, I got to know him when I lecture to Caltech. And and I relate a story there, too, which is I mean, Feynman was important in my life in a variety of ways that some of which again, I only remembered after the fact. I certainly knew that I had an experience in high school, which was kind of parallel to his. He a very influential factors. And in high school, he was kind of bored in his high school physics teacher told him about something remarkable called the principle of least action. And he and it was amazing to him. And when I was in high school, Summer five program, I was kind of bored. And a teacher came over and told me about this book by this neat guy who had talked about antiparticles particles going back in time and had won the Nobel Prize recently for it. And and I and he gave me the book and it excites me. I didn’t understand much about it. And only later on, I realized that the teacher didn’t understand it either. But. But many years later. But you know that that helped really get me excited because it was the first modern physics I’d seen. I learned all the classical stuff, the great stuff, Einstein and others. But I kind of thought physics maybe sort of done. And when I saw this modern stuff, I realized, boy, there’s a lot of excitement still to go on. And it really encouraged me to be to be a physicist. And so. And then, of course, his lecture, Feynman lectures or something, and every physics student dies, whether or not they understand them, read them. And they’re not really used in courses, but they’re kind of like a Bible. They’re they’re amazingly personal perspective on on physics that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. So it was great to meet him at the time. And then it was sort of bittersweet because years later, when I was at Caltech giving a colloquium and he was in the audience when I was a Harvard, I’d come there to give a colloquium. And and finally I asked a question or two and with anyway and in typical, he went right to the heart of the matter. And after Cauchon was over, he came up and wanted to talk. And I really wanted to remind him of the fact I was sure he wouldn’t remember me as an undergraduate. And I wanted to I just wanted to have a chance to say, you know, it was, you know, this wonderful time we had together and this very annoying assistant professor wouldn’t let Simon get a word. And he kept asking questions. And and Simon eventually gave up and walked away. And I thought, well, I’ll be able, Tom, some other time. But he he died shortly there afterwards. So I’ve always regretted that I never was able to remind him of of our earlier time together. 

Oh, yes. Well, I don’t know. 

Yeah, it’s emotional, but it’s a sad it was a sad moment for me because we he he you know, Simon, the thing about Simon. Well, there are many things, not just his amazing abilities as a scientist to to focus on things in a totally new and independent way and to just understand everything. But as a person, he was mesmerizing and so charismatic. And when when he focused his attention on you, you felt so honored in a way that he was so warm and personal. And I that’s the other aspect. I mean, I kind of and I think I’m maybe not the only one, but certainly I viewed Simon as a role model in many, many ways. That’s not to be presumptuous and suggest that I’m a fine man in any way because I don’t have any pretense in that regard. But but his his independence, his joy of doing physics and the fact that that that he tried to break stereotypes, he wasn’t the the ivory tower scientist. He was you know, he he he did unusual things. And before he talked about them any any. And he liked to do unusual things that break. And he was he he was amusing and funny and he didn’t try to be pretentious in his language. And and and related to people and also liked to explain things. And, of course, all of those aspects that really, really to me rubbed off on me. And I wanted and I certainly wanted to be like that. And I I’m. Again, I don’t necessarily make a pretense to doing it, but it’s certainly influenced me as a as a physicist in the way I did things, but also in a way that I try and communicate to people. I really believe that that that, you know, you should break those stereotypes. And I certainly try and do that myself. 

There’s a great sentence in the book that I think captured this. You say perhaps it took a man who was willing to break all the rules to fully tame a theory like quantum mechanics that breaks all the rules. So it’s like there was a connection between this personality where he didn’t listen to what anybody thought. And in fact, one of his books is entitled, If I Recall, you know, why do you care what they think? 

Yeah. Which exactly did what people think. And that was it was a sentence that his first wife I mean, and it’s in the book, it’s it’s it’s really his life is incredibly dramatic and and and ways tragic. He had a childhood sweetheart that was just the perfect complement to him. And I and I now know what that’s like to have. And it really makes it really helps you. It just helps you operate in a whole different way. And he had he had a soulmate as a young person. Eileen Greenbaum, who became Arlene Fineman, was his first wife who got tuberculosis and died relatively early. But early on, you know, she she told him that he he it’s an interesting. He was working as a graduate student at Princeton. And so a wonderful man who complimented him as well. John Wheeler, who is who was it sometimes equally crazy or equally willing to be crazy, which is what Feynman wants. What said, you know, you’ve got to be trying to not be afraid of being crazy to just explore new worlds, which really relates that quote I made about quantum mechanics. But he he was a wonderful woman. And I leaned on some a present one year with these little pencil. She used to call him Patsy, and it was a pet name. And she put pencil that on that. And he she called him one day scraping the name off because he was worried that that really would see that. And she reprimanded. And what do you care what other people think? And I think she she had to give him the courage, the personal courage and intellectual courage to follow his own track. And I think by being loved and respected, admired by someone who understood him so deeply, I think that was profoundly important to him as a young person to give him the courage he had. And he certainly could have affected him profoundly. And and there’s no doubt a lot of his he had a lot of reckless and erratic behavior in the years that followed that. And I think he I think he sort of became a nationalist afterwards and for a while, partly in response to his work on the atomic bomb. Well, after that project, I mean, he was a young man who went from graduate school and a relatively sheltered existence to be working with the world’s greatest physicists for three years on the most amazing project where for a long time you lost track of what you were, why you were doing, what you were doing and just got excited by the by the technical problems that they tried to do what they did in three years. It’s amazing if you think that the atomic bomb project began and completed within three years. Nowadays, it would take longer than that just to get the environmental protection safety requirements filled, forms filled out. And and and they and they got wrapped up in that in the science and working with the best minds in the world to hear the best minds that were put together in this lonely place in the middle of the desert in New Mexico. And it was incredibly high. You can imagine for for a young man like firemen who went in as kind of a relative unknown. He was known to be brilliant by his supervisors at Princeton. By the time he ended three years later, he was known by the best minds in the world to be one of the best minds in the world. But after that, the letdown was intense because, first of all, the forgers completed. Secondly, you saw the fruits of your labor, which is this incredible weapon of mass destruction. And for a while, firemen walked around and just looked in New York City and just thought, well, you know, this is all going to be gone soon. Because if we as he said, well, one what one fool can create another fool can create two. And he was sure that that time. You know, with the Cold War coming on, that the Soviet Union would would build nuclear weapons, which he’s actually right about. But he was certain there’d be a nuclear war. And it all seemed kind of pointless. And and his life kind of seemed pointless in a way, with the loss of of his wife. And surely there afterwards is his father. And he also made that transition from Los Alamos, where you work on technical problems that required an immediate solution and had an immediate impact. They weren’t profoundly deep problems like the ones he was had been thinking about before, the ones he’d think about later. They were very intellectually stimulating problems, but they were immediate. And then you go back and suddenly he’s an assistant professor. Suddenly he’s in a university environment where things are very different. And it was very you know, he wandered aimlessly for a long time and and before he finally got the bug again and then took off. And it is Nobel Prize-Winning work. And, you know, I know what it’s like. The other nice thing about being a biographer of him now, which is I guess I am, is if I can relate as a physicist and not a professional journalist or a historian, I had many of those experiences. And I know just what it’s like to go from one environment to another and how deflating it can be, challenging it can be and how insecure it can be. I mean, then substance is nothing more insecure than being a theoretical physicist at one level, because all you have is your ideas and you can go in and make no progress and feel incompetent and in fact find it hard because everyone knew he was brilliant and he got within a year of Los Alamos. He got a ton of job offers include a tenured job offers, and he felt more and more like people were. They didn’t like that, like they were buying U.S. goods and damaged goods and he didn’t feel like he was worth what people were were giving him. And that a incredible of pressure can be can be offered inflating again. You know, I relate an episode, the book, again, I want to emphasize not trying to make the pretense of being fired in a way. But but just personally, I remember when I when I went there being a graduate student in Boston and M.I.T. to being having a position at Harvard that was Wellesley high profile. I remember the sense of suddenly people treating me differently and I just feeling like I was unworthy. And it took about six months for me to get any work done. Because you feel that people are have had this undue respect for you that you haven’t earned. And I think Simon felt that way because certainly after the war, he’d been working on the war and hadn’t many papers and and his competitors, his younger betters, Julian Swinger, in particular, whose leadership, the Nobel Prize with him had already written many papers and Feynman felt like he’d done nothing. And it took a while before he took off. And then, of course, he once once he started getting excited again, then then then the world was his oyster and he and he was able to follow his own trajectory. And that’s what I meant. He he had enough courage again to go back and say, you know, let me redo the quantum world with relativity following his hero, which is an amazing thing, is here with Paul Dirac. And you couldn’t think of two personalities more different in the physics world. And that’s the other thing I love about physics. And I to try and convey is that, you know, people have stereotypes of scientists as if they are one way, including theoretical of. And the great thing is when science is healthy, it takes all kinds. It takes you know, not everyone has to be a mathematical wizard. Not everyone has to be socially inept. Not everyone. And and it’s just science is done by a lot of different people. And you don’t know where the contributions are going to come from. And the stereotype of the sort of nerds sitting in a room is if it is an appropriate stereotype, because it really takes off and find it was as gregarious, outgoing, talkative, you know, New York accent in some sense, street smart kind of guy spent time one of one of his his sort of epic Homeric voyages was to was to Brazil, where he spent a year basically being wild and learning how to. And that’s where he learned how to drum, by the way, in the bongo drums and then within street parades. And, you know, he done all that. And Paul Durack, who was Fleming’s hero because he had an equation named after him, but also because he was one of the founders of quantum mechanics, was the exact opposite. He he you know, you could probably the number of. Debbie Goddard in his lifetime is is probably enough to fill maybe one in less than a book. He was notably just reticent to speak about anything unless he had something to say. And I and I relate. I related one of my favorite direct stories in the book. I’m happy to relate. Here it’s a joke about Dirac. But when do when Dirac was just a postdoc, he’d gone to work for Niels Bor after being at with working with Ernest Rutherford in England. And and he just sat there in his office and didn’t talk to anyone in Buratha whose dad we just hired. And he complained to Rutherford. And Rutherford told him a story about a person who goes in to buy some parents and looks at what is very colorful and it speaks five words of a few hundred dollars and another which is, you know, speaks 20 words and the more colorful and fifty thousand dollars. But there’s a scruffy bird in the back of the store and he sends the professor, well, how much is that? And the guy said, what bird is a hundred thousand dollars? And he said, well, you know, it’s not colorful how many words? The speaker says, well, he doesn’t speak at all. And he goes, well, why are you charging hundred thousand dollars for a bird that doesn’t speak? It isn’t colorful. And the Starner says that bird thinks it was. And of course, that was the case for Direk thought and produced the most incredible work and find it admired it. 

I think there’s something actually really inspiring about the passion of scientists like yourself. Writing about another science is it’s different than a non-scientist biographer doing it precisely because of this way that it comes across that you sort of empathize with him. 

Well, thanks, Chris. I mean, I really appreciate you saying that in particular, because, you know, it’s really important and you’re you know, you’re one of the journalists. Whoo hoo hoo hoo. Explain science and points people out the important work that’s being done. But I really think it’s valuable. And for me as a young person, it was reading science by scientists that turn me on. I really think it’s important for C to see to go to the horse’s mouth in some sense, to see scientists talking about this. And in this case, for me to scientists talk about and other scientists are many of them in the book because, yeah, there’s not just the passion, but, you know, I hope people get a sense of the real feeling and the fact that there are as I was writing the book, I was I constantly. We’re sympathetic in ways because I’d had those experiences and if and I hope that passion comes along because for me, the passion of science is part of. And I like to think refinement, communicating the passion of science is one of the most important things. Science is an intensely passionate activity. It’s a human activity. It’s a creative activity. And it’s like art, literature. It’s a key part of being human. And I hope that we both try and communicate that. 

I want to remind our listeners that Lawrence Krauss new book, Quantum Man Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry dot org. Now, there are a lot of Nobel laureates out there. Not everyone knows them all by name. We do remember Feynman. 

And but it’s perhaps not necessarily just for his Nobel as much as for his popular writings and his personality. You say that Feynman, the raconteur, was every bit as creative and fascinating as Feynman, the physicist. 

Oh, absolutely. And in substance, for many be more fascinating. He loved I mean, one of the things that I find you have to realistically love to create. Also, he knew how to create his own mythology. And he was very good at that, creating the stories, the stories portrayed. You know, they were always told in a certain way. And Feynman was basically good at telling them eventually and they became famous and there in books. And I think that’s okay. I mean, I think I a totally okay. It’s important for for the for the fascination of people with the man. And I think it’s it’s what what what I hope I do. I mean, you get a lot of really, you know, fine books on Feynman and James Blitz because of his original biography, I think is a wonderful biography. But so so I think it’s wonderful that people can realize that scientists can be fascinating human beings. But it’s. But I think it’s really important. I kind of I you subject to something I used to call People magazine’s popular science web where lawyers would say, well, the science is just too hard to focus just on the personality. And you see that a lot. And and that’s fine. But for someone like Find Me, the science was the key. He could as I say, I’m sure somewhere in the book that he would joke around. But when it came to science, he was deadly serious. For him, it was the science that mattered. And and and he constantly he was almost the conscience of physics in a way to ensure that people didn’t hype stuff, that what should be hype. He exposed lots of experiments that were wrong. But the fact that he was a fascinating individual is a wonderful, wonderful thing in many ways. And I think if that people have to you know, I’ve often said that any kind of teaching is really seduction. It’s really it’s really going out to reach people where they are and do lots of different ways. I’ve personally tried to my writing my Star Trek book was, you know, using Star Trek as an example, trying to hook people into understanding physics. Right. By touching on something that they were clearly interested in. And I think, as I say, I don’t think it’s disingenuous to say that that that that fireman’s personality and his history are so fascinating that I hope that they’ll allow people who might not otherwise read about science to pick this book up because they’re fascinated with the man and and that hopefully that fascination will carry through and motivate them enough to learn about the science. Because really, in the long term, what would matter to find and was the scientific legacy and the scientific left legacy was amazing. 

I’m not a scientist, but I tell you, there’s certainly one scientifically fascinating thing. More than one. But that I came across at least reading your book, and that is that this guy is talking about nanotechnology. You know, half a century before I thought people even conceived of such a thing. 

Yeah, no, it’s it’s it’s really vast because life is facing. One person told me, and I don’t believe it, that they thought that finally once told them that he was more than computers and that he wasn’t physics. And I’m not sure he became very interested in nanotechnology because what he realized, Farber was always looking for new worlds. He wanted to be. He wanted to be an adventurer. He once told me that, you know, in fact, in our time together and it really had a huge impact for me that he wanted to seek out adventures. And I’ve tried to do that in my own life. And and I think adventures is can be found in many ways. He did in his personal life. But he also did it his intellectual life. And for him, as he he wrote a paper, you know, before I forget the name of the paper, but it’s something like that. A lot of room at the bottom. I think it’s called. And he realizes that, you know, we’ve the technology had exploded the world. At one level, the world of a quantum mechanical level was new and exciting. And if we could exploit that in our technology, well, then possibilities would open up. And in fact, he was so interested in it that one of the things he did was he’d be proposed to prizes. This was well before he won his own Nobel Prize in 1960. He said he would have two prizes of a thousand dollars, one to make the first Mauger that was small enough to be less than I think 160 fourth of. Shoved aside and fully operational and didn’t require the external power, et cetera, et cetera. That would require external power but didn’t have external working parts. And he also wanted to price for someone who could write a full page of a book on a on a on a wait for one 25000 the size of a dot on a unenjoyable printed page. And he did this because the. Well, he did it because he thought they’d never be done. 

First off, he said he did want to pay up and and to some extent, he was going to use the time to announce these things before even as a prize. This Scott McClellan came to his house with a box and it was a 16 year old ranch. And my dad was excited and at the same time disappointed because he said, well, I can’t believe it. It’s an amazing device. But I kind of hope that there’ll be new technology involved to use that technology. And now but printed the book on that because I don’t have the money anymore. I’m married and I got an a brand new house. 

But eventually, in fact, we took another fifteen or twenty years when, you know, silicon wafer technology was such that you could sort of lithographer do useful orthography to do that. That’s someone that a graduate student at Stanford did it and finally did pay up. But of course, by then, a thousand dollars was a lot easier to pay up. It was like 60. 

He was also, you know, I think, an important figure for skepticism, for debunking pseudoscience. He called it cargo cult science. And that also extended to his, you know, work on what had happened, what had caused the Challenger disaster. He was all about, you know, thinking critically and not deluding yourself. 

Yeah. Not yeah. Not following the pack. I mean, going to the heart of the matter and trying to find out how things work and not being not being distracted by nonsense or propaganda. I mean, I begin the book with a with a quote that I think is could be appropriate for five minutes. You know, in reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled. And I think that that really captures a lot of of the fact that he was indeed the conscience. He would not tolerate scientific nonsense at any level. And he was you know, he was he was certainly, you know, well, he was a friendly, nice guy. If he saw nonsensitive seminar, he was that the speaker would come away, you know, destroyed. And he was, in fact, there. There’s probably an example which I mentioned in the book, not too much, but I suspect at least one Nobel Prize was delayed in part due to Feynman said Rinus distinguishes this. Who discovered the neutrino? And later, one forty fifty years later, the Nobel Prize for the Discovery Neutrino at some point claimed in an experiment to see an effect that didn’t exist. And it caused a lot of attention. The media and firemen more or less publicly demonstrated why was wrong and why you should have known it was wrong. And I’ve often thought at the time that that that public kind of humiliation is the word. But but put public slapdown for what I think may have delayed the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Rinus, who certainly deserved it for his work in discovering the neutrino. And. And he would and he did the same thing in public. He he would. He was open. And as his public persona improved, as I say, he was willing to buck the NASA bureaucracy and go directly, talk to the people who knew. Instead of talking to people whose who gave propaganda about how NASA worked, he said, I want to go and find out how NASA really works. And he talked to the engineers. And it was through that that he discovered, you know, the problems in the in the challenger doesn’t did that famous again in a five minute esq moment, a very theatrical moment. He didn’t have to do it. You know, he took this all wrong and on television put it in a cup of ice and showed how it went, how it became inflexible. It was a typical fire maneuver. Not only that, he’d got to the heart of the matter, spoken to the engineers, found out what the potential problems really were and not what the public relations people wanted to to suggest, which is that NASA was infallible and listened to the engineers. What he discovered is that no one was listening to the engineers. But when they were expressed any concerns and then to do it in a very Shelman like way, it’s like Peter Feynman and it’s on YouTube now. 

I actually went in at, you know, reading your book. It inspired me to go find it. And everyone can actually watch him doing this demonstration right there before Congress. 

It’s perfect. And and I know it wasn’t just a showman like behavior would find. I wanted to show us how things work. He said, look, I don’t care about, you know, whether whether there’s a five discover fundamental theory, the universe. I just want to figure out how things work. And he also said, I’m not afraid of not understanding and not knowing. There’s a wonderful quote where, you know, he basically. I’m not afraid of living in a universe that’s purposeless, which is as far as I can tell. Because, you know, I don’t need to doubt and uncertainty are not are not terrifying for me there. I’d rather not understand something than have an explanation of something which is wrong. And that bravery, I think, is a profoundly important thing, because another misconception people have about scientists with bare feet on the debate about evolution. And when I go out, they think scientists want to date, aren’t open minded. They don’t want they don’t want to interfere with what their reality is. Right. And so it’s like some secret handshake. We have it. We all believe in evolution and we don’t want to think about anything else. But in fact, for scientists, especially theoretical physics, the most exciting thing is to be is to be wrong because you learn something new to learn. And in fact, it’s as I point out, the one thing we go into work every day trying to do is prove our colleagues wrong, not agree. You know, because you get the accolades is that it’s to come up with a new idea and a new way of understanding the world is. It certainly did. And so if we don’t, you buy evolution because, you know, we’ve got some secret contract that we don’t want to listen to alternatives. We buy it because it works. And and we’re not afraid to be wrong and not afraid to understand, because that’s what makes the whole business so exciting. 

Let me remind our listeners once again, Lawrence Krauss, his new book, Quantum Man, Richard Fome, His Life in Science is available through our Web site Point of Inquiry, Dawg. Yeah, there’s a passage note is a quote. And I don’t have in front of me from your book where you talk about, you know, Feynman’s idea of fun or Feynman’s idea of excitement is understanding something new and going through this incredibly laborious process to reconstruct it in his own way so that he can internally understand it thoroughly. 

Absolutely. I’m in a few places like that. One really amazed me. If we really want our home to his mother when he was a student and basically it was it was talking about how how little he understood a problem and and and how and all the mathematical difficult difficulties involved. And, um, and that has made some progress and how much fun it is worth. A lot of people be discouraged. Bye bye bye. By not making more progress and being confused. And Feynman found the process of understanding things so much fun that he wouldn’t let it go. That’s the other aspect of finding that I tried to to characterize. He had an interfaith Tinkerbelle energy, but ability to concentrate on a problem and focus on it in a way few people could. So. So he would go away when he couldn’t understand something and and he wouldn’t let his mind rest. It was so exciting for him that that was that’s what made living with what he’d come back often. You know, days later with the problem solved because because it was that that’s the chase. That’s the adventure. The problem that can’t be solved with refinement, inescapably seductive and a temptation. He couldn’t resist the temptation. 

He couldn’t resist light. But that was certainly wasn’t it. 

We hear a little bit about some of those as well. Well, anyway, just, you know, just sort of wrapping up someone that you can’t necessarily wrap up or put in a package because he’s bursting out all over the place, but rather wrapping up his place in science, if we could. I mean, it sounds to me like this is an almost uniquely inspirational, motivated character in science. But you also say, you know, you need a a wide diversity of different kinds of insights and different kinds of styles in Fineman’s, just one of them. And that’s what makes the whole scientific endeavor. 

I think that’s right. And to be fair, I mean, I tried presenta you know, it’s a fair portrait of the man and the science. And I think to some extent. If there if there was one weakness that Simon had, it was that he had to do everything his own way and perhaps not as much as he could have appreciated that other approaches were productive. And he could have. I think I mean, he did an amazing amount. And I don’t like to be hypothetical about what might have happened. But certainly there were numerous occasions when he was on the cusp of other great discoveries where if he’d been more willing to see what other people had done, he would have he would have gotten farther. And I think that’s that that’s another message that science, if Simon is is one extreme, an amazing one and with understanding. But science is a wonderful human activity that takes humans of all different types. And, you know, when I try to encourage young people to go into it, because it is one of the most exciting and fun things you can possibly do in life. And we need lots of different types of people, lots of diversity, because you don’t know where the next great discovery is going to come from. 

Well, Lawrence Krauss, you know, that passion about science and the excitement of it, I think really comes across not just from your book about Richard Feynman, but talking to you. So I want to really thank you for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks. It’s been it’s been a lot of fun. It’s always fun talking to you. Chris. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this week’s program. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam, Isaac and Amorous New York in our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. They show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney