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Feynman at his best
December 15, 2009 11:07 PM   Subscribe

"Fun To Imagine" is a BBC series from 1983 featuring theoretical physicist Richard Feynman thinking aloud. What is fire? How do rubber bands work? Why do mirrors flip left-right but not up-down? All is explained in his lovely meanderingly lucid manner.

Part 1: Jiggling atoms
Part 2: Fire
Part 3: Rubber Bands
Part 4: Magnets
Part 5: Electricity
Part 6: The Mirror
Part 7: The Train
Part 8: Seeing Things
Part 9: Big Numbers and Stuff (a)
Part 10: Big Numbers and Stuff (b)
Part 11: Ways of Thinking (a)
Part 12: Ways of Thinking (b)
posted by mhjb (26 comments total) 204 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've seen The Train before and thought it was great. Thanks for compiling these.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 11:30 PM on December 15, 2009 [2 favorites]


Thanks for the post. God, I miss that guy.
posted by Skot at 11:41 PM on December 15, 2009


Not much fun to imagine that the number of stars in the galaxy is the same as the US deficit in 1983....

Besides that, this is great, and Feynman is super awesome. Thanks.
posted by papayaninja at 1:45 AM on December 16, 2009


Why do mirrors flip left-right but not up-down?

I've always hated this question, because it starts with a false premise and purposely misleads and confuses. It's not some sort of deep philosophical question, or even a physical question. Mirrors don't flip left-right. My right hand is on my right side. The reflection of my right hand is also on my right side.
posted by explosion at 3:50 AM on December 16, 2009


One of my favourite people of all time. What an incredible human being.
posted by Will_Tuna at 3:57 AM on December 16, 2009


it starts with a false premise and purposely misleads and confuses. It's not some sort of deep philosophical question, or even a physical question. Mirrors don't flip left-right.

Well, that's true but obviously people think that they do (or rather don't think enough about it) otherwise the question has no traction. Its not a 'when did you stop beating your wife' kind of question. Its more of a riddle.

For another great explanation of mirrors, see here
posted by criticalbill at 4:04 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm so mad I didn't start reading Feynman until after he died.
posted by Think_Long at 5:30 AM on December 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I can vividly remember watching these when they were first on... twenty five+ years ago.... a quarter of a century ago... thanks for making me feel ancient.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:42 AM on December 16, 2009


Feynman, Sagan, Gould. Heroes. I may not have an aptitude for science, but because of these fellows, I have a love of it. And Attenborough, too.

One of the best moments of my life was seeing Feynman, then dying, on the panel looking into the first shuttle calamity. The nasa flack going on about how the o-rings were safe, and Feynman so casually dipping one of them in a pitcher full of ice water and crumbling it to bits. Truly, truly great.
posted by Trochanter at 6:05 AM on December 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Thanks for these links. There's a lovely thread to his discussions here and elsewhere in which he describes his tricks for seeming so smart, when in fact, he's just a regular guy (like the beginning of the mirror segment). The extemporaneousness of the magnet discussion is great. That an extemporaneous discussion with him was worthy of the BBC speaks volumes.
posted by dylanjames at 7:07 AM on December 16, 2009


I prefer Look Around You...
posted by GavinR at 7:18 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


One of the best moments of my life was seeing Feynman, then dying, on the panel looking into the first shuttle calamity. The nasa flack going on about how the o-rings were safe, and Feynman so casually dipping one of them in a pitcher full of ice water and crumbling it to bits.

I don’t suppose there’s video of this? Or is it in the fpp? – I can’t watch at work
posted by Think_Long at 7:52 AM on December 16, 2009


There is video of the o-ring discussion, but it's pretty poor quality.
posted by heydanno at 7:59 AM on December 16, 2009


Here's a slightly better video of Feynman's demonstration in front of the Congressional panel. It's spliced with a more recent demonstration of the o-ring in ice water so you can both hear and see what he's talking about.

The ring doesn't actually crumble - it's not so dramatic as some think. But it's still an obvious demonstration of a design flaw. I understand he thought up & carried out the experiment right there in the room while the panel was in progress. That was the genius part - his realizing that instead of just talking about whether or not the o-rings would hold, he could actually test it, and do it right then and there. That's SCIENCE!
posted by echo target at 8:01 AM on December 16, 2009 [11 favorites]


This is awesome. God I love Mr Feynmann. I'm looking forward to watching these.
posted by jpdoane at 8:05 AM on December 16, 2009


I gotta have my orange juice
posted by euphorb at 8:29 AM on December 16, 2009


The ring doesn't actually crumble - it's not so dramatic as some think.

Sorry. I guess I've embellished it in my mind over the years. But still, talk about Occam's Razor!
posted by Trochanter at 8:55 AM on December 16, 2009


And by Occam's Razor, I guess I mean talk about cutting through the bullshit.
posted by Trochanter at 9:00 AM on December 16, 2009


Mirrors don't flip left-right. My right hand is on my right side. The reflection of my right hand is also on my right side.

Think of the question being, "why do people think that mirrors flip left-right?", or "why is there a left-right illusion?"

Another way to phrase the problem: draw the letter 'F' in "mirror writing". Why did you draw it flipped along the vertical axis and not the horizontal? Why has that become "mirror writing"?

Most explanations don't really adequately answer this question. They'll say things like "mirrors don't flip left-right, they flip front-back," without explaining why flipping things front-back looks to most people like it's been flipped left-right. Feynmann does a bit of this in explaining that we normally think of walking around the mirror to get where the other guy is, but there's something very weird about that. For instance, it would mean that if people moved about like Slinkys, then we'd see the guy on the other side of the mirror as upside-down. I, at least, find it very weird that my experience of mirror writing has to do with facts about the way that I walk around.
posted by painquale at 10:02 AM on December 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Maybe a better way to phrase the question: it is difficult to read text in a weird font flipped along either a horizontal or a vertical axis. When presented in front of a mirror, text flipped left-right along a vertical axis is easy to read but text flipped up-down on a horizontal axis is not. Why is this?

There, no false premises, and not liable to confuse. And Feynman's explanation -- that our seeing the person in the mirror as left-right flipped involves an act of interpretation, imagining how the person in the mirror would have gotten over there -- doesn't seem to capture the ease with which we can read mirror writing in a mirror, which is almost definitely too perceptual and low-level to involve any interpretation of that sort. I think people tend to dismiss this puzzle too early.
posted by painquale at 10:14 AM on December 16, 2009


My hero. Thanks for this!
posted by Songdog at 11:39 AM on December 16, 2009


Thanks for this.
posted by Acey at 3:15 PM on December 16, 2009


Now tell me about echoes...
posted by Acey at 3:16 PM on December 16, 2009


Here's a bit of magic.

If you write the letter F on a transparency instead of on paper, the mirror doesn't flip it.
posted by Anything at 3:55 PM on December 16, 2009


The NASA / O-ring discussions are well covered in James Gleick's Feynman biography, Genius. But I've never seen the footage from the panel before today, thank you!

His conclusion from his insightful demonstration, after who knows how much bureaucratic and scientific babble throughout the hearings, was wonderfully understated: "I believe this has some significance for our problem."
posted by borborygmi at 4:49 PM on December 16, 2009


These are excellent! Grazie!!!
posted by louieyak at 8:40 AM on December 18, 2009


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