Category Archives: Just Having Fun

The Curious Mr Feynman

Richard Feynman was a curious character.

He advertised as much in the subtitle of his autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Everybody knew that, in many respects, Feynman was an oddball.

But he was curious in every other sense of the word as well. His curiosity about nature, about how the world works, led to a Nobel Prize in physics and a legendary reputation, both among physicists and the public at large.

Feynman was born 100 years ago May 11. It’s an anniversary inspiring much celebration in the physics world. Feynman was one of the last great physicist celebrities, universally acknowledged as a genius who stood out even from other geniuses.

Another Nobel laureate, Hans Bethe, a Cornell University physicist who worked with Feynman during World War II on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos (and later on the Cornell faculty) referred to Feynman as a magician. “Normal” geniuses, Bethe said, did things much better than other people but you could figure out how they did it. And then there were magicians. “Feynman was a magician. I could not imagine how he got his ideas,” Bethe said. “He was a phenomenon. Feynman certainly was the most original physicist I have seen in my life, and I have seen lots of them.”

Feynman was a master conjuror of physics. A mathematical whizz with exceptional intuition, he seemed to pull solutions out of thin air. He crafted a lexicon for particle interactions: iconic squiggles, loops and lines now known as Feynman diagrams. His Nobel-prizewinning work on quantum electrodynamics included methods that even he saw as a sleight-of-hand for removing infinite terms from calculations. Yet, his results — equivalent to more systematic, rigorously expounded mathematical techniques independently proposed by co-laureates Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga — matched atomic-physics data beautifully.

Apart from his brilliance as a physicist, Feynman was also known for his skill at playing the bongo drums and cracking safes. Public acclaim came after he served on the presidential commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. In a dramatic moment during a hearing about that disaster, he dipped material from an O-ring (a crucial seal on the shuttle’s rockets) into icy water, demonstrating that an O-ring would not have remained flexible at the launch-time temperature.

His autobiography had already become a best seller, so Feynman was well-known when he died in February 1988.

John Wheeler, Feynman’s doctoral adviser at Princeton University before World War II said then “I felt very lucky to have him as my graduate student. “There was an immense vitality about Feynman. He was interested in all kinds of problems.”

Feynman’s curiosity was not satisfied merely by being told the solution to a problem, though.

“If you said you had the answer to something, he wouldn’t let you tell it,” Wheeler said. “He had to stand on his head and pace up and down and figure out the answer for himself. It was his way of keeping the ability to make headway into brand new frontiers.”

Feynman found fascination in all sorts of things, some profound, some trivial. In his autobiography, he revealed that he spent a lot of time analyzing ant trails. He sometimes entertained Wheeler’s children by tossing tin cans into the air and then explaining how the way the can turned revealed whether the contents were solid or liquid.

Curiosity of that type was instrumental in the work that led to his Nobel Prize. While eating in the Cornell cafeteria, Feynman noticed someone tossing a plate, kind of like a Frisbee. As the plate flew by, Feynman noticed that the Cornell medallion on the plate was rotating more rapidly than the plate was wobbling. He performed some calculations and showed that the medallion’s rotation rate should be precisely twice the rate of the wobbling. He then perceived an analogy to a problem he had been investigating relating to the motion of electrons. The wobbling plate turned out to provide the clue he needed to develop a new version of the theory of quantum electrodynamics.

“The whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate,” he wrote in his autobiography.

It was not curiosity alone that made Feynman a legend. His approach to physics and life incorporated a willful disdain for authority. He regularly disregarded bureaucratic rules, ignored expert opinion and was willing to fearlessly criticize the most eminent of other scientists.

During his time at Los Alamos, for instance, he encountered Niels Bohr, the foremost atomic physicist of the era. Other physicists held Bohr in awe. “Even to the big shot guys,” Feynman recalled, “Bohr was a great god.” During a meeting in which the “big shots” deferred to Bohr, Feynman kept pestering him with questions. Before the next meeting, Bohr called Feynman in to talk without the big shots. Bohr’s son (and assistant) later explained why. “He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea,” Niels had said to his son. “So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”

Feynman knew that he sometimes made mistakes. Once he foolishly even read some papers by experts that turned out to be wrong, retarding his work on understanding the form of radioactivity known as beta decay. He vowed never to make the mistake of listening to “experts” again.

“Of course,” he ended one chapter of his autobiography, “you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.”

Feynman’s books urge us to explore the world with open-minded inquisitiveness, as if encountering it for the first time. He worked from the idea that all of us could aspire to take the same mental leaps as him. But, of course, not every ambitious young magician can be a Harry Houdini. Whereas other educators might try to coddle those who couldn’t keep up, Feynman never relented. The essence of his philosophy was to find something that you can do well, and put your heart and soul into it. If not physics, then another passion — bongos, perhaps.

Original stories on Science News and Nature.

Mischief Managed

Very exciting! It’s about to start!

Little Puffles and Jay are at Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in concert with WASO.

Back in 2016, CineConcerts partnered with Warner Brothers Consumer Products to launch a series of “Harry Potter” film concerts. The Harry Potter Film Concert Series reformats the Harry Potter film into an orchestral concert experience that offers audiences a live symphony orchestra performance of the entire score in-sync with the film, which is simultaneously projected onto a high-definition 40-foot screen. The original dialogue and sound effects are kept intact, while all the music is pulled out of the film, making for the interesting challenge of mixing live music against the dialogue and the effects.

In 2016 it was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in concert, last year was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and this year is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in concert. Little bears didn’t attend the concerts in previous years but are very likely to attend future concerts. Squirming children notwithstanding, it was a fun and eye-opening experience.

The film has a wonderful score by John Williams. The soundtrack album was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score, the Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and the World Soundtrack Award for Best Original Score of the Year.

John Williams, a.k.a. That Guy Who Composed Almost Every Spielberg Film, composed the score for the first three Harry Potter films. He is responsible for the iconic title theme, known as Hedwig’s Theme, which is featured in all eight movies and makes us close our eyes and picture Hogwarts on the backs of our eyelids.

Like the movie itself, Williams’ score takes on a darker tone this time around, featuring tracks like The Dementors Converge and The Werewolf Scene. Hogwarts feels like the medieval castle it is supposed to be in this installment, and Williams’ score sounds like music you may have heard echo in its stony halls centuries ago.

Williams also injects a bit of Shakespeare into the proceedings with the Double Trouble song featuring the lyric Something wicked this way comes (Act 4, Scene 1 of Macbeth).

Williams’ score didn’t just jump off the screen, it was literally off the screen! The live symphony orchestra performance showcases Williams music which is composed of mini suites or movements rather than brief sound snippets (as is often the case with many film scores). The soundtrack comes off almost as an entire symphonic suite as opposed to just a bunch of random elements tossed together. Williams somehow managed to pull together all the different music styles (traditional classical romanticism, ancient music and even avant garde jazz) very well.

Mischief Managed is the score for the end credits and it reincorporates all the major themes from the film. These themes are craftily woven together by new score and appropriate variation of it. And of course, it ends triumphantly with Aunt Marge’s Waltz.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban introduced some of little bears’ favourite Harry Potter elements.

Public transport has never been as rock ‘n’ roll as the Knight Bus, always there for the stranded witch or wizard. Big, purple and triple-decker, the bus pretty much had everything, including eccentric bus conductor Stan Shunpike, hot chocolate, and most importantly, beds. It wasn’t exactly a smooth ride, but it got Harry out of a pretty tight spot – no questions asked.

The Knight Bus and Stan Shunpike at Universal Studios Orlando

The Marauder’s Map was gifted to Harry by Fred and George. The map appears to be a blank piece of parchment unless activated by the phrase: I solemnly swear that I am up to no good. Another phrase deactivates the map: Mischief Managed.

The magic used in the map is advanced and impressive; it includes the Homonculous Charm, enabling the possessor of the map to track the movements of every person in the castle. The map is also enchanted to forever repel (as insultingly as possible) the curiosity of their nemesis, Severus Snape.

Mr Moony presents his compliments to Professor Snape and begs him to keep his abnormally large nose out of other people’s business.

Hermione’s determination to drink in as much education as possible required her to use a Time-Turner. Single Hour-Reversal Charms are encased in small, enchanted hour-glasses that are worn around a witch or wizard’s neck and revolved according to the number of hours the user wishes to relive. Department of Mysteries’ investigations show that the longest period that may be relived without the possibility of serious harm to the traveller or to time itself is around five hours.

As you can imagine, it’s not exactly easy to get your hands on one of these, but little Isabelle has managed to 🙂

Harry Potter fans owe a debt of gratitude to Alice Newton. Alice was 8 years old when her father, a Bloomsbury Publishing executive, brought home a new manuscript for her to read.

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside,” she scrawled in a note to her dad. “I think it is probably one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read.”

Based on this glowing review, Bloomsbury published Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, launching a literary juggernaut that brought magic to a generation of children. And little bears 🙂

Alice’s penciled note was part of the British Library’s exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic. The exhibition, which coincided with the 20th anniversary of the publication of J.K. Rowling’s first book, was an unabashed celebration of the stories and their antecedents. Little Puffles and Honey visited the exhibition last December.

From ancient amulets to medieval mandrakes, from unicorns (they really did exist) to bubbling cauldrons, there are often historical and mythological antecedents for the characters and scenes in the Harry Potter series.

The exhibition featured many precious artefacts relating to the Harry Potter books – early drafts, original drawings by J.K. Rowling and intricately worked out plot plans for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

J.K. Rowling’s original handwritten draft of chapter 17 of The Philosopher’s Stone.

The exhibition also looked at magic and the nature of belief, revealing that many of the things Harry Potter fans thought were imaginary actually were based in fact – or folklore. It includes rare books and manuscripts from around the world, together with cauldrons, broomsticks, crystal balls and potion manuals that offer insight into J.K. Rowling’s inspiration and how the books came to be.

Jacob Meydenbach, Ortus Sanitatis (Strasbourg, 1491)
A mandrake being pulled out by a dog, in Giovanni Cadamosto, Herbal

The exhibition was divided into rooms based on the subjects studied at Hogwarts – Potions, Herbology, Divination, Care of Magical Creatures and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Each section touches on the legends and beliefs that Rowling wove into her stories, with historical objects illustrating the scholarship behind the narrative.

The Divination-themed room at the British Library’s exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic
The Potions-themed room at the British Library’s exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic
The Potions-themed room at the British Library’s exhibition, Harry Potter: A History of Magic

The potions section, for example, features a Bronze Age/Iron Age Battersea Cauldron on loan from the British Museum. It sits beneath cauldron light fixtures that flicker in the subdued light and offer the viewer a chance to get into the Halloween-like aura of it all.

Battersea Cauldron, on loan from Trustees of the British Museum

There was also a section on alchemy, the medieval forerunner of chemistry, that featured the Ripley Scroll, a six-meter long manuscript from the 1500s that describes how to make a Philosopher’s Stone. Nearby is the tombstone of Nicolas Flamel, a real alchemist who features as a character in Rowling’s first book.

The Ripley Scroll, England, 16th century
Tombstone of Nicholas Flamel – Paris, Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge

Another highlight was original artwork from Jim Kay. Kay has illustrated the first three Harry Potter books for Bloomsbury. Little bears had to have!

Mischief managed!

Jedi Training Academy

Class is in session 🙂

The little Jedi favourite subject, movies! 🙂

They are watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The usual characters make an appearance…

Princess Leia and BB-8 in her brand new Millennium Falcon 🙂
Yoda and… Yoda 🙂
Luke Skywalker 🙂

Little bears are blissfully unaware of the storm in a tea cup surrounding this movie. Star Wars films have always had light moments, but apparently some (a lot of) fans bristled at The Last Jedi‘s frequent moments of levity among its darker material and saw the film’s jokes as the director not taking this extremely serious franchise about laser swords and space magic seriously enough. Seriously!

No such issues with the latest Avengers movie which is full of very fine comic touches and one-liners despite the threat of utter devastation of the whole universe! 🙂 Maybe Avengers super-fans have a better sense of humour than Star Wars ones.

Posted on the official Star Wars Twitter account, this was a nice little letter that served as a graceful bow. On its opening weekend, Avengers: Infinity War took the opening weekend record set by Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015. More than that, the Marvel Studios film also had the most successful international release of all time. It will be a while before another movie takes the record and hopefully it will be another Avengers one!

In the meantime little bears know how to have fun 🙂

A Moroccan Feast at Hadiqa

Hadiqa is a whimsical rooftop bar inspired by the flavours and features of the Middle East.

Little bears had to try it out, of course 🙂

As always desert comes first 🙂 Turkish Delight Martinis! Millennial pink in colour with a piece of real Turkish delight as the garnish, it’s a dream come true for their taste buds!

Turkish Delight Martinis

The gorgeous crockery was crafted for the bar in Marrakesh and Morocco.

When it comes to the food, think Middle Eastern flavours like harissa, ras el hanout, tahini and orange blossom. There is freshly baked pita, plenty of snacks and a few mains, all perfect for sharing. A couple of knockout dishes are the haloumi (with orange and anise) and cauliflower (with ras el hanout and yoghurt).

Pita (soft & crispy); fava dip (with sweet onion & sesame); haloumi (with orange & anise)
Cauliflower (with ras el hanout & yoghurt); grilled lamb with cucumber and pomegranate; green couscous (with zucchini & lemon)

The feast was delicious! Little bears will go back to Hadiqa, they didn’t try the other deserts!