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The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.
This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:. Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules.
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In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but — astonishing to classically trained musicians — seven against six and thirteen against twelve.
After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. Chain Reactions. The Battleship and the Mosquito Boat. Shrinking the Infinities. Schwingers Glory. Computing by Brain.enter
Computing by Machine. The earth was paper white, and everything on it seemed featureless and two-dimensional. The sky began to fade from silver to yellow to orange, the light bouncing off new-formed clouds in the lee of the shock wave. Something creates clouds! An experiment was in progress.
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He saw an unexpected glow from ionized air, the molecules stripped of electrons in the great heat. Around him witnesses were forming memories to last a lifetime.
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It was not the kind of light that could be assessed by human sense organs or scientific instruments. Rabi was not thinking in foot candles when he wrote, "It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way into you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye.
Then came a crack like a rifle shot, startling a New York Times correspondent at Feynman's left. He looked like a boy, lanky and grinning, though he was now twenty-seven. A solid thunder echoed in the hills. It was felt as much as heard. The sound made it suddenly more real for Feynman; he registered the physics acoustically. Enrico Fermi, closer to the blast, barely heard it as he tore up a sheet of paper and calculated the explosive pressure by dropping the pieces, one by one, through the sudden wind. T he jubilation, the shouting, the dancing, the triumph of that day have been duly recorded.
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On the road back, another physicist thought Feynman was going to float through the roof of the bus. The bomb makers rejoiced and got drunk.
They celebrated the thing, the device, the gadget. They were smart, can-do fellows. After two years in this red desert they had converted some matter into energy.
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The theorists, especially, had now tested an abstract blackboard science against the ultimate. It was alchemy at last, an alchemy that changed metals rarer than gold into elements more baneful than lead. Later they remembered having had doubts.
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