I figured out how to solve the current COVID-19 crisis. Resurrect Richard Feynman from the grave. Who? Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a clown, a quantum physicist, an atheist, and one of the sharpest minds of the twentieth century. He was famous for playing bongos and infamous for picking the top-secret file cabinet locks and leaving ‘got-cha’ notes at Los Alamos where he helped develop the world’s first atomic bomb. They couldn’t fire him, though, because he had an indispensable knack for making abstract things understandable and solving tough problems. In 1947 came up with a simple diagram for modeling quantum particle interactions that didn’t require advanced mathematics. He also understood how even the most beautiful systems can get out of whack with deadly consequences. You take our modern healthcare system. You have some of the brightest minds in the world at the CDC and a very stable genius in the Whitehouse. Yet together, this public health system is producing 1,000 unnecessary deaths a day. If only we had a clown like Feynman to show us where we went wrong.
In the 1980s NASA had a great system for putting people and satellites in orbit. Then one January morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger blew-up. Remember it? The cause of the accident was a mystery. So, even though he was dying of cancer, Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the Roger’s Commission and help NASA understand what was wrong with its system. What Feynman found was a systemic culture that devalued human life. NASA had the best engineering and science at their fingertips. They also had policies and procedures that should have kept the crew of the Challenger safe. One of their rules was not to launch when the temperature is below 40 degrees. It was for NASA kind of like the CDC’s guideline that states should have a sustained reduction in COVID-19 cases for two weeks before they reopen, among other things. On January 28, 1986, the temperature at the launch pad was 28 degrees. NASA launched, killing the five astronauts.
Why? Feynman discovered that NASA was under tremendous political pressure to keep up its launch schedule. Today, we see a similar political push to open up our economy, regardless of whether or not we have the pandemic under control. On the Roger’s commission in the 80s, everyone wanted to find a simple flaw in the hardware of the rocket so that things could get back to normal. Feynman insisted that the problem wasn’t the rocket but the culture at NASA that disregarded science and safety to fulfill the expectations of those at the top.
It took a clown, like Richard Feynman, to get everyone to see this. At the end of the public press conference where the Rogers commission made its report, he produced an O-ring, made of the same material as the ones that sealed the critical booster joints on the shuttle. He showed how flexible the rubber O-ring was. Then he threw it into his glass of ice water. A few minutes later he lifted the O-ring out and showed how brittle it had become. Here was the direct cause of the accident. But the O-ring wouldn’t have failed if a healthy safety culture at NASA had been permitted to scrub the launch.
No, we can’t resurrect Feynman to solve our COVID-19 crisis. We can follow his lead and ask what has happened to our political and public health systems to permit over a hundred thousand people to die. We also cannot say, as they did in 1986, that launching at 28 degrees was an acceptable risk. Nor can we say that reopening while the case numbers continue to rise is something that we can live with. An American culture that no longer respects human life is not one that works for me.