During World War II, Richard Feynman, then a very newly-graduated physicist, was sent from Los Alamos, New Mexico (the heart of the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb) to Oak Ridge in Tennessee, where the nuclear material for the bomb was to be enriched. He was tasked with making sure that the factory there would actually work, and that its design was technically and scientifically acceptable. Needless to say, as a relative novice, he was more than a little unsure of his ground.
In his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” he describes what happened.
I sat down and I told them all about neutrons, how they worked, da da, ta ta ta, there are too many neutrons together, you’ve got to keep the material apart, cadmium absorbs, and slow neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons, and yak yak – all of which was elementary stuff at Los Alamos, but they had never heard of any of it, so I appeared to be a tremendous genius to them.
The result was that they decided to set up little groups to make their own calculations to learn how to do it. They started to redesign plants, and the designers of the plants were there, the construction designers, and engineers, and chemical engineers in the new plant that was going to handle the separated material.
They told me to come back in a few months, so I came back when the engineers had finished the design of the plant. Now it was for me to look at the plant.
How do you look at a plant that isn’t built yet? I don’t know. Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was always coming around with me because I had to have an escort everywhere, takes me into the room where there are these two engineers and a looooooong table covered with a stack of blueprints representing the various floors of the proposed plant.
I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. They had problems like when there’s an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it’ll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.
Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuuuurp – going through the stack of blueprints, down-up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.
I’m completely dazed. Worse, I don’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It’s a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damned place. I think it’s a window, but no, it can’t be a window, because it isn’t always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.
You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say, “What are you wasting my time all this time for?”
What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it’s a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” – figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”
So one looks at the other and says, “Well, if that valve gets stuck -” and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, and the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, “You’re absolutely right, sir.”
So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, “You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you want through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?”
I told him you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.
And that’s how Richard Feynman developed an early reputation as an eccentric genius, one that was to stand him in good stead throughout his career. I highly recommend all his books. They’re good fun, and educational besides.