Can You Count to 60?
Can you count from 1 to 60? I had not counted on meeting an
old friend on my predawn walks on the beach here on Marco. I
met this old friend on the beach the other day - not a human
friend but a bird, a tall stately heron. There were no other birds
around when I passed him in the darkness. He and I were both
looking at the nearly full moon flitting dramatically between the
clouds. Surely it was the same heron I wrote about in these
columns last year. Then, too, he was the only heron on the beach
and I fantasize him having a philosophic vision setting him apart
from his kin. Otherwise, why would he get up so early and just
stand there in the dark gazing at the moon? On my return, I
planned to ask him but he had moved into a nearby lagoon to join
three pelicans in what I presume was either a quest for food or
perhaps just a sociable get-together.
There is also the possibility that the heron was anticipating the
liftoff of the Space Shuttle Columbia, scheduled for the next
morning. Last week, I mentioned Columbia''s mission to service
the Hubble Space Telescope. When I heard the weather forecast,
with predicted temperatures near freezing for most of Florida, I
thought to myself, "Please don''t fly that bird!" Fortunately,
NASA felt the same way and rescheduled the launch. Columbia
was launched and had much the same problem I described with
my car on the trip to Marco Island - we both had plugged up
cooling systems. Fortunately, Columbia''s problem has not
interfered with the Hubble mission, which is going on now.
In his January 28 Bar Chat column, Brian Trumbore dealt with
the tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission, which is what
prompted my concern over liftoff of Columbia in near freezing
temperatures. It was Richard Feynman who, as a member of the
panel investigating the Challenger disaster, showed that those
cold temperatures compromised the O-ring seals in the rocket
engine. His classic demonstration at a press conference putting
an O-ring in ice water and showing that it became brittle was
elegant in its simplicity. This direct approach typified the
character and behavior of Feynman, one of the most brilliant, and
most colorful, scientists of the past century.
Coincidentally, one of the books that I brought to Marco is "The
Pleasure of Finding Things Out", a collection of short works by
Feynman. The book includes his minority report on the
Challenger panel. He had to fight to have it included, with
opposition to its inclusion due to its critical comments on NASA.
Another coincidence - while driving to the grocery store the
other day, I heard an interview on Public Radio with someone
who apparently knew Feynman. Unfortunately, I only heard a
snatch of the program and didn''t catch the fellow''s name.
However, I was surprised to hear him say in effect that Feynman
was a lousy teacher and wasn''t able to get his colleagues to
understand his work.
Feynman''s work, for which he won the Nobel Prize, was in
quantum electrodynamics, a field that is just as formidable to me
as it sounds. This fellow on the radio said that none of his
colleagues understood Feynman and his work but fortunately,
Feynman talked with Freeman Dyson. The story of Dyson''s role
in the ultimate recognition of Feynman''s is worth mention.
Dyson wrote the foreword to the book I have and likens his
association with Feynman to that of Elizabethan dramatist Ben
Jonson and William Shakespeare. Dyson quotes Jonson as
saying, "I did love this man this side idolatry as much as any",
the man being Shakespeare. Both Dyson and Jonson were
learned and scholarly, while both Shakespeare and Feynman
were "slapdash" and geniuses. Dyson and Feynman met at
Cornell in 1947 after Feynman had worked on the Manhattan
project and had been a student of John Wheeler at Princeton (you
may recall mentions of Wheeler in the movie "A Beautiful
Mind"). Dyson, who came from England, says he hadn''t
expected to meet Shakespeare in America, but when he met
Feynman, he had no difficulty recognizing him.
He found Feynman not interested in publishing erudite papers
but passionately engrossed in trying to understand nature.
Feynman was trying to describe nature in pictures and diagrams,
later to become the celebrated "Feynman diagrams" that
physicists employ in complex calculations of particle
interactions. Dyson also was following the works of two other
physicists interested in the same problem. Julian Schwinger and
Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, however, were using more conventional
methods and complex mathematics. Dyson saw that all three
were getting the same results and in 1949 published a paper titled
"The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and
Feynman". This paper in Physical Review showed that, though
the theories looked different, they were the same. All three
shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. Dyson says Feynman
never once complained that Dyson was stealing his thunder but
encouraged Dyson to publish the paper, which launched Dyson''s
own career as a renowned theoretical physicist.
Why did I ask if you count from 1 to 60 in opening this column?
I was intrigued by one chapter in the book that illustrates the
unique nature of Feynman. When he was a graduate student at
Princeton, he read a paper by a psychologist claiming that a
person''s sense of time is related to a chemical reaction involving
iron. The psychologist based this conclusion on data he collected
by having his wife count up to 60 without looking a clock. The
poor wife had a chronic fever that would come and go and her
husband found that she counted faster when the fever went up
and she slowed down when the fever ebbed. Somehow, the
psychologist related this to the speed of certain iron reactions as
the temperature changes. Feynman pitied the wife having to
count all the time and thought the paper was bunk!
However, Feynman wondered what did control one''s sense of
time and, typical Feynman, he began to count from 1 to 60. It
took 48 seconds, give or take a second or so each time he
counted. He now had his "standard rate". Thinking his counting
rate might be associated with his heart rate, he would run up and
down steps and then lie down and count. He tried counting while
running up and down but found, when his dorm mates questioned
his activities, that he couldn''t talk and count at the same time.
Feynman tried all kinds of combinations of running up and down
stairs and decided that temperature doesn''t play a role - he still
counted a 48-second "minute". Then he tried reading
newspapers and counting - still 48 seconds. If he typed simple
words and counted, same result. However, if he came to a
problem word, he would have to stop counting. After many
other experiments, he decided the only thing he absolutely
couldn''t do and count was to talk. When he reported these
findings at lunch one day, a guy named John Tukey was a skeptic
and bet that Feynman could not read and count, while he, Tukey,
could count and talk at the same time.
Tukey was flabbergasted to find that Feynman could indeed read
and count. Now it was Tukey''s turn. After establishing his
standard "minute", Tukey began talking, reciting poetry and
saying anything that came into his head. Sure enough, he
stopped at his "minute" right on the button. Now it was
Feynman''s turn to be amazed. Finally, they found the reason for
the difference in their contrasting abilities to count and read or
talk. Feynman was counting by "talking" to himself as he
counted and read. Hence, he couldn''t talk to anyone else and
count. Tukey, on the other hand, counted by visualizing a ticker
tape with numbers going by. Since he was already "looking" at
the tape, he couldn''t count and read, but was free to talk.
From this set of observations requiring no more than a clock, a
profound conclusion emerged - when people are performing a
task, such as counting, what goes on in their heads is different for
different people. Imagine what Feynman could have done with
modern technology that permits direct observation of what goes
on in the brain when people perform different tasks.
This difference in brain activity in different individuals prompts
me to note my own dramatic limitations when it comes to certain
concepts. For example, I have a distinct problem visualizing
things in three dimensions. Others can mentally view a 3-D
object from all angles. Feynman said that he saw letters in colors
when he visualized equations and mentions light tan js, brown xs
and violet-bluish ns. I can imagine that these colors might have
helped him to discern patterns and concepts more clearly than us
ordinary mortals. And did Tukey''s ability to see that tape with
numbers flitting by help him to become a giant in the field of
modern statistics? In addition to becoming a full professor at
Princeton, Tukey was an associate director of research at Bell
Labs when I was there and was awarded the National Medal of
What about that heron? Who knows what he sees and feels
standing there in the dark? What about his sense of time? Is it
just insomnia that gets him up so much earlier than his
colleagues or is it indeed, as I fantasize, an appreciation of the
beauty of the night? And how do I know it''s a "he", not a "she"?
You got me there!
Allen F. Bortrum