[Beowulf] Off topic - Feynman and The Challenger

Lux, Jim (337C) james.p.lux at jpl.nasa.gov
Wed Feb 12 17:33:35 PST 2014

On 2/12/14 11:51 AM, "Douglas Eadline" <deadline at eadline.org> wrote:

>FYI, I liked it, found some things a little forced to
>squeeze in some references to Feynman's other work.
>I still recall seeing him in the televised hearings
>demonstrating the frozen sealant and thinking that
>is such a brilliant and simple demonstration of
>the issue.

A trap that technologists (including myself) fall into is getting
fascinated by the technology when explaining something to non-specialists.
 We go on about sophisticated variable rate coding schemes that allow
approaching the Shannon Limit with minimum computational resources and
iterative maximum likelihood decoders with parallel processing, and what
they want to hear is "HD video on your cellphone"

Feynman was very good at working at multiple levels of explanation, and
that is not easy. So while Feynman could probably hold his own talking to
a bunch of mechanical engineers talking about elastomer nonlinear behavior
over temperature, he knew that a simple demonstration of that behavior was
more appropriate for that audience.

He did get flak for being a bit of a showman for that "stunt", but I think
that's the same thing that occurs for "science popularizers" like Asimov
or Sagan.  It's almost like a hold over of the "amateur tradition" from
Victorian times:  Gentlemen do not seek attention, it is vulgar.

I've had the opportunity over the last few months to spend a lot of time
explaining a moderately complex technology to an interested but
non-technical audience. As a result, I've got a heck of a lot more respect
for people who can do it well. (google/bing "jim lux NASA heartbeat")

Interesting to this group, we DID use HPC in developing FINDER: FDTD EM
propagation models.  However,I don't talk about Rayleigh scattering and
dispersive heterogenous media and model/experiment correlation. I have a
physical model that I can hold in my hand to show what's going on, albeit
somewhat inaccurate in scale.

I think it's important that if we want people to spend money on high
performance computing and other nifty technology, we've got to make it
tangible to them in a desirable way.   Sadly, many of my acquaintances
think that HPC is mostly used for high frequency trading (evil bankers in
the 0.001%) and (recently) Automatic scanning of phone call and email
content (evil government snooping), and don't think in terms of "better
fuel economy for your car".  Computational chemistry and biology are also
big users of HPC, but I avoid talking about those, because that can
trigger the whole genetic engineering/big Pharma discussion.

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