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Friday, January 18, 2008

What do you care what other people think?

Feynman Diagram [Source: hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu]

While surfing on Technorati website, I came across a post mentioning my hero's name, Richard Feynman. The title of this post "what do you care what other people think?" was actually an advice given by Feynman's wife to him when he was confused what to say at the commission investigating the Challenger disaster. It is also the title of his book describing his adventures in the big NASA organization. Life is, unfortunately, just like that. Sometimes you cannot say what you believe in. You are going to hurt some people when you do that.

In the Challenger disaster, Feynman had to dig deep to find out the cause of the space shuttle explosion. He went to the engineers and technicians - people at the lowest hierarchy, and eventually discovered the O-ring was the culprit in the tragic accident. The O-ring is a rubber object that prevents gas leak in the shuttle's fuel tanks. When the temperature drops, it behaves differently, becoming more brittle-like. It turns out that the night before the shuttle launch, the temperature was freezing cold. So, when the space shuttle was launched, the O-rings were not able to prevent the gas leaks (the hydrogen got mixed with the oxygen) and hence the deadly explosion. Now, NASA kept a log of their previous shuttle launches but failed to notice the correlation between the launch temperature and accidents. They had been looking at the successful launch data only while ignoring the failed missions. So it took a single physicist to point out the important information. The way Feynman presented the results of his investigation before the Rogers Commission was also pretty dramatic. All he used was just a glass of cold water and a G-clamp and the O-ring.

Anyway, as he expected, some of the details in his findings report were deliberately censored by the Commission. Maybe some big boys in the government don't like to see some things published.

Feynman Stamp

Occasionally, I get some kick out of solving important problems in my engineering career. I remember one time when the whole R&D team was trying to figure out an ESD-related problem with the cordless phone the company I worked for designed. They spent almost a month and did some patchwork but still, the phone could not pass the specifications. So, my manager got me in and I did some thinking. I looked at the phone and asked myself where the engineers could have overlooked, not wanting to repeat what they have already done and waste my time. I figured out it must be under the electrical shield on the PCB. The PCB layout made it difficult to remove the shield and the engineers probably assumed there was nothing wrong there. After removing the shield, I found that the electrolytic capacitor was inserted with the wrong polarity in. Once that was corrected, the problem was fixed. Maybe it was a bit of luck and a bit of smart guesswork - it was fixed in less than a week.

Not trying to show off lah. Sometimes it is nice to look back at my achievement and relive my moment of success. I guess that is what you keep after all is old and gone. Your sweet memories. So, sometimes when you know you are right about something, be confident and don't be afraid to go against the popular opinion. In my humble opinion, Feynman is a very inspiring character. He has another book "Surely you must be joking, Mr Feynman" which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. He has many interesting stories to tell and made me laugh every moment. I would recommend it to you.

Finally, half-expectedly, my manager told me there seemed to be some more problems...