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MannyRayner

Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
What Do You Care What Other People Think? - Richard P. Feynman We were having a discussion about safety at NASA in another thread and I thought of this book, about half of which consists of an account of Feynman's role in the investigation following the Challenger disaster. One of the other reviewers complained that this section was too long, but I found it completely fascinating.

Feynman was always very good at asking tough questions and at describing things as they are, not as they are supposed to be. The most famous bit is where he's at the press conference and demonstrates the critical problem with the O-ring by dropping one into a glass of ice-water. That was certainly dramatic. But I found the surrounding discussion even more interesting. As Feynman said, he was forced to make this dramatic gesture because he felt that the people in charge didn't actually want him to uncover the reason for the crash. They just wanted it to look like all due diligence had been applied.

Also, when he started digging into the safety calculations, he rapidly discovered that they made no sense. NASA had all these claims about how careful they were, and how unlikely it was that anything could go wrong on a launch. They quoted figures like "a one in ten thousand chance of failure". So Feynman does the obvious piece of arithmetic and says, guys, do you honestly mean you could launch one Shuttle a day for 30 years and only get a single crash? Several technical people back down and say, no, of course not, the real figure is probably more like one in a hundred. There are too many unknowns. But the senior managers stick to their guns, and when he goes back to talk to the techies a second time they won't confirm their earlier comments.

There is a really tragic story here about self-deception. The US politicians decided that space travel needed to be safe, but they didn't understand that it couldn't yet be done. Their unwillingness to accept this fact has almost killed manned space flight.

The rest of the book is pretty good too. Warning: the chapter about his first wife and her early death from tuberculosis might make you cry.