Sunday, March 23, 2008

Strange book

Can't remember what made me buy Richard Feynman's book 'What do YOU care what other people think?'. I'd had it on my self of books 'to be read' for at least a year.

Feynman, a physicist, was involved in the development of the atomic bomb (nice man??), and it seems he also got a Nobel Prize, for physics, presumably. I had thought this book would be a 'meaning of life' type book, and I have a feeling I may have given it to someone else for his birthday.

It's a strange collection of materials, consisting of a rather moving story about his first wife, a few letters to his family, some anecdotes about his travels, and a large section on his part of the 'Challenger' disaster enquiry. I wonder how they chose to put these writings together in one book?

His writing style is very strange; extremely colloquial, to the degree that you think some of the stories are written for an audience of 10-year-olds. Which makes it very easily readable and accessible, of course. It is clear that he has a huge enthusiasm for science, and is very keen to interest people in it, and to use any means whatsoever to connect people with science. He also seems to be a hands-on kind of guy who is not afraid to ask difficult questions, and is very happy to connect with people at all levels of organisations and society in order to find out sensitive facts, or just to talk to them. There are stories of him having wonderful relationships with other people's children who, when he was expected for dinner, would not go to bed without connecting with him first.

This is all very well, and very pleasant, but it seemed a bit pointless to put together a book about it. Until I got to the bit about the Challenger disaster (when one of those space shuttles exploded shortly after take-off). This I found really fascinating. Call me a techie (which I was before I turned all warm and loving and 'social' ['social' only in the technical sense, not in the meaning of 'sociable']), but it took me straight back into the world of systems analysis and systems failure, my happy hunting ground of about 25 year ago. Seems that the Challender disaster was a classic case of systems failure - technical problem combined with management issues, and possibly political pressures. This section I found absolutely inspirational and would hope to use his approach in dealing with my work, too. Unfortunately often there are political reasons why this might not be appreciated; and in cultures where people can be sacked at whim for giving open and free information you have to weigh up the risk to individuals.