Thursday, 21 March 2013

Challenging the Challenger

Like a lot of people who studied physics I hold Richard Feynman in great regard and put him up with the likes of Newton and Einstein. If you haven't come across Feynman, he was one of the lead theoreticians developing the atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project, went on to get a Nobel Prize for his work on Quantum Electrodynamics - the hugely successful theory of how light and matter interact - developed the approach and diagrams that were crucial to vast swathes of quantum theory and, towards the end of his life, became a bit of a celebrity because of his role in the enquiry into the Challenger shuttle disaster.

This is of interest now because the BBC has recently shown a drama-documentary, Challenger, on Feynman's role in that enquiry. If you hurry (and are UK based) you can still catch it on BBC iPlayer.

Feynman was, effectively, the only truly independent person on the commission, and where the rest seemed largely inclined to try to minimise any negative impact on NASA, Feynman wanted to get to the truth. He hadn't particularly wanted to do this job, seeing it as primarily bureaucratic, but if he was doing it, he would understand the science and technology and get to the truth - which, with some semi-undercover steers from engineers on the project, he did.

Challenger's solid rocket boosters failed because it was very cold on the launch day, and the rubber O-ring seals failed to flex into place. Feynman's gift for theatre (and he was a superb lecturer) was responsible for breaking the wall of silence. It was claimed at a televised commission hearing that the O-rings would not lose their flexibility down to -40*. Feynman put a clamped O-ring into a glass of iced water and on camera released the clamps to show that it did in fact lose flexibility at freezing point - and it was a good few degrees colder on the launch day. You can see the actual revelation here:

How did the drama do? Pretty well. William Hurt did a great job of looking like the ill and ageing Feynman (though for some reason he didn't attempt Feynman's pronounced New York accent - I don't understand why, this grated for me throughout). Joanne Whalley was underused as his distinctly Yorkshire third wife. But the whole thing was lavishly done, looked great, and got the message across well. If it was rather 'Feynman v the world' this is how he presented it himself.

Because I ought to say that Feynman was a great story teller. One of the reasons he is so loved is his superb collection of tales from his life on the Manhattan Project, Surely You Are Joking Mr Feynman? It's here we learn of his rebelliousness, regularly breaking into safes and secure filing cabinets to demonstrate their weakness. However, it is widely accepted that these stories have to be taken with a pinch of salt. They are brilliant stories, but may have been embellished. And the Challenger line is very much based on Feynman's own account (in What Do You Care What Other People Think?). Does it make the whole thing untrue? No. And it's wonderful storytelling, with significant elements definitely true. But like all personal stories we need to be a little careful taking it as accurate history.

Do see the programme if you can. It's excellent. Enjoy it. Accept it mostly - but do apply the same sceptical scrutiny that Feynman himself would certainly have applied.

* When I say -40, you may be wondering if I am talking Celsius or Fahrenheit. The answer is yes.


  1. Brian

    Thank you for pointing out this programme; I've just watched it on the iPlayer and your comments are well made. I used the accident and the commission's findings for several years afterwards in one of my lectures about risk management and fraud and the need to look carefully at the Human Factors involved in the design of organisational systems, especially those which have been found to fail.


  2. Thanks Ian - yes, it's a good point about the human factors. (And thank goodness for iPlayer).