In 1986, the Challenger space shuttle launched with seven crew and passengers, 73 seconds later it blew apart and they all died.
A public enquiry was launched, and Richard Feynman was chosen to be a member, not just because he was a professor of theoretical physics and a Nobel Prize winner, but because he was also a maverick.
He asked questions no one else would so he came up with answers no one else would.
Feynman spotted a consistent weakness, the O rings in the solid-fuel rocket boosters.
At launch, because of the massive heat generated, there would be a huge, almost instantaneous, change in temperature.
The O rings would have to expand in milliseconds to maintain the seal.
Feynman checked all the data and saw the O rings had been tested at normal temperatures, but on the night before the launch the temperature had dropped to around freezing.
Feynman kept trying to raise the point about the O rings in cold weather, but each time the head of the committee, William Rogers, passed quickly over it.
He’d been instructed by President Reagan: “Whatever you do, don’t embarrass NASA”.
Feynman had to find a way to get his point made despite this obstacle.
He knew that data and statistics which only scientists could understand wouldn’t cut through.
So the next morning, before the committee opened, he went to a hardware store and bought some pliers and a small clamp.
When he got to the committee he asked for a glass of iced water.
As he publicly questioned one of the scientists he asked if it was crucial that the O ring responded immediately to changes in temperature.
The scientist said yes, it was absolutely critical.
Feynman then walked over to an exact-replica model of the shuttle and took out his pliers.
He removed the O rings from the rocket boosters and squeezed them in the clamps he’d bought at the hardware store.
Then he dropped the clamps and O rings into his glass of iced water.
After a few seconds he took the clamps out of the iced water and removed the O rings.
He showed the scientist that the O rings weren’t expanding, because of the ice-cold water they stayed in their squashed position.
So they couldn’t have expanded on the launch pad.
Rogers quickly brought the meeting to a close: “There is no point dwelling on the past.”
But Rogers was too late, the press had seen the demonstration and knew their readers would understand it.
Next day, Feynman’s point about the O rings was in all the media, it couldn’t be hushed up.
When the report eventually appeared, one of its chief findings was:
“The cause of the Challenger accident was determined to be the failure of O-rings in the right-hand booster joint to contain the pressure of hot gases produced by burning rocket fuel. Flames burned through the booster wall, causing the booster to tear away from the external tank, which ruptured, spilling highly flammable liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Low temperatures on launch day stiffened the rubber O-rings so much that they could not maintain a seal in a joint and opened the gap the rings were supposed to seal in the first second after ignition.”
Feynman made his point because he was the only person on the committee not relying on facts and figures, data and statistics.
William Rogers was hoping anything damaging would be lost in the fog of numbers and technical jargon, so Feynman did the exact opposite.
Feynman put it into language anyone could understand: a simple demonstration.
The facts and numbers are just the brief, what Feynman did was get them remembered in a way that was impossible to ignore.
That’s what we should be doing.
As Feynman said, “I’m a pain-in-the-ass but I think that’s my job.”