Thoughts on Feynman’s 102nd Birthday

As the 102nd anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth occurs this month (May 11, 2020), I have been thinking about what he might have said in relation to the current coronavirus situation.

Two statements come to mind. Here’s the first: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman made that proclamation in the context of the Space Shuttle Challenger, a spacecraft described by its proponents as so safe that it would be like flying in a commercial aircraft. But no amount of wishful thinking  — what Feynman called “public relations” and I’ll call PR for short — could hide the fact that when the temperature falls below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C), things freeze — including O-rings, which needed to be elastic in order for the Shuttle to operate safely. The Shuttle was launched when the temperature was below freezing; it blew up shortly after launch, killing all the astronauts aboard.

In the current context of the new coronavirus, no amount of PR will prevent nature from doing what it’s going to do: as with the Shuttle, ignoring reality will result in tragic, unnecessary deaths. Scientists do their best to understand reality and nature free from PR. The countries where politicians have heeded the advice of scientists, and have not subjected them to PR pressure, have been the most successful at fighting the new coronavirus.

The other statement is one that Feynman cited as a Buddhist proverb in his lecture “The Value of Science”: To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.

Feynman helped develop the atomic bomb, a project that relied on cutting-edge science, in an urgent effort to prevent Nazi Germany from taking over the world. It was immediately obvious how the bomb represented a great destructive force — killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Japan, and setting off the Cold War. Thus science was the key to both the gates of heaven and the gates of hell.

Feynman’s main contribution to the atomic bomb project was actually in computing: he developed a method of “parallel processing” so that human “computers,” as they were called — mainly women who were good with numbers — could get results ten times as fast as before.

Since the war, computing has been seen as a force for good, helping scientists understand the world better, and helping people enrich their knowledge and communicate with others all over the world. Today most people in the world have “smart phones,” which are basically hand-held computers that not only connect people to other people; they also connect each person’s “smart phone” over the internet to big computers, which run platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

Those platforms use programs or algorithms using artificial intelligence that suggest what to look at on YouTube and Facebook. On YouTube and Facebook, lies — be they PR or even worse (i.e. conspiracy theories) — travel faster than facts; they “go viral” and cause severe problems for society. For example, even if a vaccine is developed on such a grand scale so everyone can be protected against the new coronavirus (which would be an unprecedented scientific and technological achievement), many people might refuse to take it, due to the conspiracy theories they have been exposed to on those platforms. Welcome to the gates of hell.

I hope that remembering the life and work of Richard Feynman will help us combat PR and conspiracy theories, and thus allow reality a chance to take precedence over public relations in the fight against the new coronavirus — for nature cannot be fooled. At the very least, reading a few of his stories from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! could help us escape the gates of hell for a moment and have a good laugh.

— Ralph Leighton, May 2020