Surely, you must be joking


Today while perusing the Microsoft Research Twitter alias I saw something that caught my eye. A reference to Richard Feynman --- arguably one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. The tweet referred to some work Microsoft is doing using his work and how it may change the way people learn and to the Microsoft Research effort called Project Tuva. Then a follow-on tweet from Peter Thomas referenced his blog mention of Feynman got me thinking and writing this blog.

If you have never heard of Richard Feynman you should not feel bad, but you should feel deprived of learning from one of the smartest, most creative (he played the bongos), and truly insightful men of the past 100 years. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winner and had a wide range of interests. From his professional work on the Manhattan Project to his “side” interests in safe cracking, juggling and playing the bongos.

Side note: If you are not familiar with Microsoft Research that’s understandable as they are pretty low-key. Microsoft Research (MSR) is one of the best funded research teams in the world with over $8B in funding to do both basic and applied research. Dream Jobs made daily.

Bongo Drums

Feynman was as equally famous for his eccentricities as he was for his contributions to science.  This short blog post cannot possibly cover everything in detail. I highly recommend picking up books about him, watching the videos of his lectures (on the Microsoft Project Tuva site), and reading through the information posted all around the internet.

image Feynman was known to break into the safes at “secure” facilities where he was duly employed and leave notes for the people that were supposed to be protecting the contents held within. He also created a secret code in conjunction with his wife to pass notes back and forth to bypass the censors. Again, no state secrets were being transferred, but the fact that he and his wife had the raw intelligence to pull it off is impressive.

His diverse interests led him to biology, nanotechnology, and as mentioned above how people learn.

Bringing a Tragic Event to Terms

Richard Feynman had a knack for helping bring complex subjects to the masses. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a certainly a low point in the history of the space program. Feynman did not try to make light of this tragedy. Rather he explained AND showed what happened. He showed what caused the O-Ring to fail - Feynman’s Frozen O-Ring. 

A Fun loving guy, but No Pulled Punches

When it came to being a imagescientist Feynman was no slacker and he was not shy about telling people what he thought. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was just one example. He took no pride in letting NASA know that their views on “factors of safety” were skewed. However, he felt it was his duty as a citizen and and part of the Rogers Commission which was charged with investigating the Challenger disaster. Other examples include his thoughts on the use of nuclear technology, the possibilities with the then (and maybe still) nascent concepts of nanotechnology, and his desire for a hands-on process and new angle of approach for learning new things. 

Tuva or Bust

Feynman lived quite a life. One of his dreams was to visit Tuva – which during most of his lifetime was part of Russia. Ironically, the day after he died a letter arrived granting him permission to visit Tuva. While he never made it to Tuva a book was written about it --- "Tuva or Bust" – which another part of what got me thinking about this blog post in the first place.

While I never was able to meet the man in person I feel like I know part of him through his writings (some might say antics) and from the writings of his friends. If you would like to learn more about Richard Feynman please take the time to pick up at least this book --- Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) and if this intrigues you pick up the next book in the series that follows from the same conversations --- What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character.  Or his biography Genius by James Gleick

I think Richard Feynman was a precursor to another great scientist that gave back so much and with a similar passion – the late Randy Pausch where he inspired millions with his book The Last Lecture.

Tuva or Bust – Indeed

It was great to see the reference to Richard Feynman today on the Microsoft Research twitter alias. It brought me back to a book I read over 20 years ago, yet it still resonates like it was yesterday. I was also happy to see I’m not the only one that’s been affected in a similar way. The tweet from Peter J Thomas was a wake up call and was part of the impetus to write this blog post.

I hope you liked it and I do hope you take the time to pick up at least one of the books on Richard Feynman. You will not be disappointed.

With that said --- Who Inspires you? Please drop a comment here and let me know. Or if you want to use a different tool my contact information is below.

Science & Free Thinking – For The Win!

clip_image002About The Author:
I have spent the better part of the last 16 years working in various aspects of the ECM space. I spent time at
Kofax, Microsoft, FileNet, K2, and most recently Captaris (which was acquired by Open Text in Nov 2008). Prior to that I was a Unix VAR running my own company. Follow me on Twitter, check my blog, send email or find me on Facebook or LinkedIn.

** I am available for consulting projects and speaking engagements. My areas of emphasis are business development and alliance management at the Intersection of Enterprise Content Management and Social Media.

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Anonymous said…
Great to see that Feynman inspires people to this day. Will have to take a look at the MS archive.

I would second your recommendation of reading Feynman's own books and the biography pulls off the difficult trick of being entertaining, moving, informative and meticulous in its research (the references read like scientific citations).

Steve Chambers said…
I missed the connection between this blog post title and the content: where does this talk about an intersection of people and process - is it the shuttle paragraph?
Jeff Shuey said…
Thanks Steve for the comment. I often don't explicitly call out links or other parallels to people and process. I leave that as an exercise for the reader. Often times the links are obvious and other times not so much.

In the case of Richard Feynman as a scientist he was a implicitly a strong follower of the Scientific Method. Which, of course, is all about process - predictable & repeatable processes.

Feynman was a master at using common everyday language to help explain what could be complex and obtuse topics. In the case of the space shuttle Challenger disaster there were a lot of scientific descriptions about elasticity and temperature gradients for operational efficiency that Richard Feynman eschewed with a simple, inexpensive and very graphical experiment using a glass of ice water and said O-Ring.

He showed the people a process by which the O-Ring would fail.

Richard Feynman was so expert at this way of thinking and explaining things that Microsoft Research is using him as a model for Project Tuva.
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