On Boiling Eggs, William Shakespeare, and Richard Feynman

Not long ago, I boiled a dozen eggs.

After accidentally misquoting Shakespeare, while watching these eggs boil (“Boil, boil, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble”), I then correctly quoted Shakespeare at the eggs, by shouting, “You egg!” at them, as they boiled.

What . . . you’ve never talked to your food? If not, just try it some time, for it makes life more interesting. If you’re worried about people thinking you’re crazy, I have another quote, from the physicist Richard Feynman, for you to consider:  “What do you care what other people think?”

Little seems to be going right today, for correctly quoting Shakespeare meant being, at the same time, mathematically incorrect. Twelve and one are, of course, not the same number, but I’m not willing to deliberately misquote Shakespeare, for that would be, well, wrong.

I was then asked, by someone who heard me, um, shouting at boiling eggs, exactly which of Shakespeare’s plays it is, in which the line “you egg” appears. Since I did not know the answer to this question, I immediately used this situation as an opportunity to test the alleged omniscience of Google, which I test, and re-test, frequently. (So far, Google always passes these experimental tests, but I will post an announcement here if this fact ever changes.) I also googled my earlier, failed attempt to quote Shakespeare, which is how I now know that I was misquoting him.

In case you’re wondering why I was fact-checking myself, here’s another Feynman quote, offered as explanation:  “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” Those are words to live by — and I do.

Not only did Google know that the two-word quote I remembered (from 10th grade English class, over thirty years ago, simply because I found it funny) comes from Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 2, but it also, very helpfully, showed me the way to the YouTube video which you can see below.

For those few readers of my blog who have not already noticed this, I lead a strange life.

Of course, I certainly wouldn’t want a normal one, but, clearly, I don’t need to worry about that.

How Richard Feynman Saved Eastern Tennessee from Getting Nuked

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I’m reading the book shown above for the second time, and am noticing many things that escaped my attention the first time through. The most shocking of these items, so far, is finding out that history’s first nuclear explosion almost occurred by accident, in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, during World War II. One person prevented this disaster, and that person was Richard Feynman, my favorite scientist in any field. If you’d like to read Feynman’s account of this, in his own words, it’s in the chapter “Los Alamos from Below,” which starts on page 107.

Feynman, a physicist, was one of many civilians involved in the Manhattan Project, doing most of his work in New Mexico. At one point, though, he obtained permission to visit Oak Ridge, in order to try to solve problems which existed there. These problems were caused by the American military’s obsession with secrecy, which was caused, in turn, by the fact that it was known, correctly, that at least one spy for the Nazis was among the people working on the Manhattan Project. The military’s “solution” to this problem was to try to keep each group of civilians working for them in the dark about what the other groups of civilians were doing. Most of them had no idea that they were working to develop a bomb, let alone an atomic bomb. In Tennessee, they thought they were simply working on developing a way to separate uranium isotopes, but did not know the underlying purpose for this research.

The military men in charge knew (because the physicists in New Mexico figured it out, and told them) a little bit about the concept of critical mass. In short, “critical mass” means that if you get too much uranium-235 in one place, a runaway chain-reaction occurs, and causes a nuclear explosion. The military “brass” had relayed this information to the civilian teams working in Tennessee, by simply telling them to keep the amount of U-235 in one place below a certain, specific amount. However, they lacked enough knowledge of physics to include all the necessary details, and they deliberately withheld the purpose for their directive. Feynman, by contrast, did not share this dangerous ignorance, nor was he a fan of secrecy — and, as is well known, the concept of respecting “authority” was utterly meaningless to him.

While in Tennessee, Feynman saw a large amount of “green water,” which was actually an aqueous solution of uranium nitrate. What he knew, but those in Tennessee did not, is that water slows down neutrons, and slow neutrons are the key to setting off a chain reaction. For this reason, the critical mass for uranium-235 in water is much less than the critical mass of dry U-235, and the “green water” Feynman saw contained enough U-235 to put it dangerously close to this lower threshhold. In response to this, Feynman told anyone who would listen that they were risking blowing up everything around them.

It wasn’t easy for Feynman to get people to believe this warning, but he persisted, until he found someone in authority — a military officer, of course — who, although he didn’t understand the physics involved, was smart enough to realize that Feynman did understand the physics. He was also smart enough to carefully listen to Feynman, and decided to heed his warning. The safety protocols were modified, as were procedures regarding sharing of information. With more openness, not only was a disaster in Tennessee avoided, but progress toward developing an atomic bomb was accelerated. It turns out that people are better at solving problems . . . when they know the purpose of those problems.

Had this not happened, not only would Eastern Tennessee likely have suffered the world’s first nuclear explosion, but overall progress on the Manhattan Project would have remained slow — and the Nazis, therefore, might have developed a controlled nuclear bomb before the Americans, making it more likely that the Axis Powers would have won the war. Richard Feynman, therefore, dramatically affected the course of history — by deliberately putting his disdain for authority to good use. 

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The Erdős-Bacon Number

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What do Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Natalie Portman have in common?

They all have the same Erdős-Bacon number:  six.

Natalie Portman collaborated (as Natalie Hershlag) with Abigail A. Baird, who wrote mathematical papers in a further collaborative path which leads to Joseph Gillis. Gillis, having co-written a paper with Paul Erdős himself, has an Erdős number of one. This gives Portman an Erdös number of five. Bacon and Portman both appear a movie (which one?  See the details in this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erd%C5%91s%E2%80%93Bacon_number), which gives Portman a Bacon number of one.

The Erdős-Bacon number is simply the sum of these two numbers — hence Natalie Portman’s six:  five plus one.

Feynman’s and Sagan’s sixes are more balanced. Richard Feynman’s is the most so, since his Erdős and Bacon numbers are both three.

I haven’t been able to determine who first thought of an Erdős-Bacon number, but . . . wow. It came from the blogosphere (Where else?) — Wikipedia reveals that much.

Some blogger might be obsessive enough, someday, to exhaustively determine exactly how many people even have such numbers. However, that person will not be me.