Tuesday, May 14, 2013

it's not rocket science

I caught the second half of The Challenger on BBC2 last night. Interesting stuff, for all that the source material is pretty familiar to most. The Challenger disaster was one of the seminal events of my early teenage years, one of those Kennedy moments where I can remember, even 27 years later, exactly where I was when I heard about it - I was in a minibus on the way back from competing for my school quiz team in a local schools quiz organized by the RNIB. It was a particularly chastening moment since I also recall being allowed to skip some lessons five years earlier to witness the launch of the first shuttle Columbia, among great awe and optimism, and it was a sobering demonstration that the course of human endeavour is not a steady upward progression, things do go wrong, and actual people do die in what were presumably fairly horrible circumstances when they do.

The drama mainly focused on the involvement of legendary physicist Richard Feynman in the Rogers Commission set up to investigate the disaster, and his famous demonstration of the problems with the rubber O-rings at low temperatures. While the dictates of successful drama ensure that the lone-maverick-against-the-system angle was probably overplayed, there's no doubt that Feynman's independence and flair for clear and critical thinking was a key factor in determining the source of the disaster.

William Hurt did a pretty good impression of Feynman in terms of not looking completely unlike him and carrying off the mad scientist wig reasonably convincingly. He didn't really attempt to reproduce Feynman's chewy New York accent, though, and retained that distinctive slightly vague, slightly bemused air he has in most of his parts. I think the real-life Feynman would have been a slightly sharper and more abrasive customer. It took me a couple of goes to recognise Feynman's third wife Gweneth, but I got it in the end: Joanne Whalley, still very foxy even at 51.

There's plenty more Feynman available on YouTube, most of which is well worth a watch, including this BBC Horizon documentary from 1993.

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