Sunday, March 10, 2013

Is that a true story or just a fairy tale?

The last story in Chapter 16 of Paul Smith’s book Lead with a Story (on how to Build Courage) is the title story from Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think? Paul did a good job of condensing it while keeping the main point intact. But, I was appalled at how his introduction for it got what happened wrong. Here is what he said on page 146 (which you can find at Google Books):

“Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist known in scientific circles almost as much for his sarcastic wit and bongo playing as for his brilliant science. Publically he was a bold character remembered for his defining role in the investigation of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Characteristic of Feynman, he refused to go along with the prescribed inquiry arranged for him and the other 11 congressionally appointed investigators. His unapproved conversations with NASA engineers led to the correct conclusion that the cause of the shuttle disaster was a tiny rubber O-ring on the fuel line. During the congressional panel - unannounced - Feynman flamboyantly illustrated his theory by pulling a similar O-ring out of his glass of ice water and throwing it on the dais, shattering it in front of hundreds of journalists and television cameras. Apparently, the temperature on the morning of takeoff was well below that of any previous shuttle launch. Too cold, in fact, for the rubber O-ring to maintain its flexibility, causing it to shatter under pressure.”

First, the O-ring wasn’t on the fuel line. Instead it was on a field joint between two segments of the solid-fuel booster rocket. Second, that O-ring wasn’t tiny. Its cross-section was a circle with a diameter of about a quarter of an inch, and it had an outside diameter of about twelve feet. The O-ring thus contained about 21.8 cubic inches of rubber, or roughly 1-1/2 cups.

Third, the story of what Feynman did in front of the panel was way off. Feynman’s book tells what happened in another chapter titled The Cold Facts. The Associated Press obituary for him also has a clear description:

“Officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration initially played down any possibility that cold weather impaired the resiliency of O- ring seals on the shuttle's booster rockets, thus allowing burning fuel to erode through the rings to cause the fatal blast.

But at a recess during the commission's hearings in February 1986, Feynman showed O-ring resiliency was sharply reduced by cold. He compressed a piece of rubber-like O-ring material with a simple clamp, dropped it into a glass of ice water, pulled it out and released the O-ring piece, demonstrating that it lacked any resiliency for a few seconds.

'’I believe this has some significance for our problem,'’ he said.

The commission agreed in its final report, concluding Florida's pre-launch freeze contributed to an O-ring failure that caused the accident.”

You even can watch a thirty-second Youtube video here.

Where did Paul Smith get the fairy tale with the shattered O-ring? I looked around on Google Books and was surprised to find several incorrect versions written down.

The story closest to his comes from page 156 of Patti Digh’s 2010 book, Creative is a Verb:

“During the hearings, many engineers and scientists testified exhaustively on their findings about the composition and construction of the O-rings on the Challenger, to no conclusive finding. This went on for some time until one day Feynman took a model of the O-ring, put it in his glass of ice water, left it momentarily, then extracted and shattered it on the table, demonstrating the failure of the O-rings due to freezing temperatures in Florida at launch time, leading to the terrible tragedy in 1986. Sometimes simple works.”

William E. Burrows’s 2010 book, This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age, says on page 558 that:

“At one point Feynman publicly dropped a sample of the O-ring rubber into his glass of ice water and then easily snapped it in two to dramatically demonstrate that it had become brittle.”

Some other versions involve a hammer. For example, page 989 of the 2011 book College Physics, Volume 2 by Raymond A. Serway and Chris Vuille says:

“Later he served on the commission investigating the Challenger tragedy, demonstrating the problem with the space shuttle’s O-rings by dipping a scale-model O-ring in his glass of ice water and then shattering it with a hammer.”

Two other versions use different, more exotic fluids. Margaret Wertheim’s 2011 book, Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, says that:

“Those old enough to remember will recall how he dropped a rubber O-ring into a beaker of dry ice and water, causing the O-ring to shatter and thereby explaining how the spacecraft had failed.”

Hartmut Janocha’s 1999 book, Adaptronics and Smart Structures: Basics, Materials, Design, and Applications, claims instead on page 407 that:

“Richard Feynman performed his now famous experiment, shattering an O-ring after immersing it in liquid nitrogen to illustrate the point.”

What can we learn about storytelling and speechwriting by reading these fairy tale descriptions of an event that was well covered by television and newspaper reporters? Relying on our memories of events isn’t good enough. When possible, we should go back to a transcript of what was recorded if we want to tell a true story. Fairy tales should begin with a phrase like “once upon a time.”

Your credibility goes right down the toilet when you claim you’re telling a true story, but instead just are reciting a fairy tale. 

An image of Red Riding Hood came from the Library of Congress.

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