A bit of classic Feynman

I'm not sure how, but I'd never seen any clips of young Richard Feynman speaking until physicist Walid Younes posted this video to Google+.

The talk itself is great and covers some important stuff. (Of course, it's Feynman!) The key thing here is the connection between theoretical understandings of how the universe works and practical observations. Theories are used to make predictions. When the predictions turn out to be correct, we get some more evidence that the theory is on the right track. Here, Feynman talks about how the theory of gravity led to the discovery of the speed of light, and how knowledge of the effect of gravity on planetary orbits led to the discovery of the planet Neptune. Very cool stuff.

But what stood out to me—and what makes this different from all the old!Feynman videos I've seen—is the persona his younger self projects. Born and raised in Queens, the young Feynman comes across, at least in accent and physical mannerisms, like some big mafia palooka straight out of central casting. Most likely, my startled reaction to this is due to Midwestern bias and being raised in an era where American regional differences in accent and culture have been largely flattened out. But it's still fascinating ... and amusing as hell to hear a guy who looks and sounds like he should be guarding hostages or threatening shop owners instead talking about gravitational theory.

Video Link

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  1. Speaking of eloquent and funny men, Neil Degrasse Tyson explained what sparked the search for Planet X, which dovetails neatly into the Feynman talk here.

    In the log books of one of the big observatories (might have been Yerkes, but don’t quote me on that), there’s written mention of maintenance done to the gears, so they had to be taken off the axes for a day.  But this was in the midst of several consecutive nights of observations of Neptune, so that the gears were NOT calibrated exactly the same from one night to another, and it seems the astronomers were unaware of this, which created a “mathematical ghost” in their observations, a non-existent aberration in Neptune’s apparent elliptical orbit.

    This observational mistake of Neptune, which was heard around the world and created a century-long stir, was pinpointed in the 1990s, I’m surprised it’s not mentioned more often, especially in light of all the Pluto brouhaha.

    1. Feynman was from Queens. I can’t tell the difference but anyone from either place certainly can. Either way, he’s right out of Guys and Dolls.

      1.  I’m slowly getting an ear for the accents. The difference in accents doesn’t seem to be as broad in the US as say between Glaswegian and cockney, but then most American accents I hear are on film and TV. I watched some of that documentary about Henry Miller campaigning for mayor of New York and I could hear a pronounced Irish lilt in his voice.

    2.  Well, when I saw your comment (but not remembering the name), my instant thought was “well, Michael Caine or somebody from that movie about the diamond”.

  2. It’s funny how the crowd seems to laugh at all the wrong moments. They were just expecting him to say funny stuff all the time it seems.

  3. To add a little flesh to the story, the competing Neptune searcher did indeed look, and even found it first, but for whatever reason decided ‘hm, that’s an interesting object, I shall look at it further when I’ve found this new planet’…

  4. This is from a lecture that Feynman gave at Cornell in 1964. The entire series is available online via a Microsoft promotion for Silverlight called Project Tuva:

    http://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/tuva/

    The whole thing is awesome and well worth investing seven hours.  That’s right — there’s seven hours of this (with much better audio quality, even).

  5. ‘Born and raised in Queens, the young Feynman comes across, at least in accent and physical mannerisms, like some big mafia palooka straight out of central casting.’ 

     ‘a guy who looks and sounds like he should be guarding hostages or threatening shop owners instead talking about gravitational theory.’

    wtf? so we can blame stupid ethnic stereotypes on your midwest insularity? 

  6. “Born and raised in Queens, the young Feynman comes across, at least in accent and physical mannerisms, like some big mafia palooka straight out of central casting.”

    This is always what I dug about the older Feynman: he always came across to me like a tough guy/character actor!

  7. I found his mannerisms and cadence of speech to be effective at holding my attention, due to their off-beat timing.  It reminded me of Jeff Goldbloom’s performance in The Fly.

    I mean, before he turned into a horrible monster. :)

  8. Great piece of popularising science, but sadly on follow up it appears to stretch the facts. 

    Danish astronomer Rømer did discover that light must have a finite speed, announced in 1676, by observing the moons of Jupiter.  Newton published his work in 1686, though it appears that the inverse square law was widely known about for perhaps two decades before Newton employed it. On publication Newton was in fact accused of plagiarism by Robert Hooke amongst others (still a live controversy amongst historians of science).  Ergo Newton’s laws were not instrumental in discovering the speed of light. 

  9. Feynman enjoyed the fact that he was a “street guy” in an academic universe and he played the wise guy most of his life. My guess is he worked hard to hold on to his gruff accent and mannerisms even after living in California for much of his life. For those who’ve never read them, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What do  you Care What Other People Think are must reads if you’re a Feynman fan. If you’ve not seen it, the piece No Ordinary Genius is a great overview of his life: http://youtu.be/Fzg1CU8t9nw

  10. For some reason, I was reminded of the accents of Groucho Marx or the Three Stooges instead.

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