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The Making of The Mechanical Universe

Toward the end of the 1980/1981 academic year, I began wondering how I could preserve the physics course I had created. I could write a textbook, but that prospect didn’t seem very appealing. I knew that television was becoming part of our teaching infrastructure, and thought I ought to look into the possibilities. I went to the President of Caltech, Murph Goldberger and got him to give me a small grant. Then I hired Don Delson, who had been a member of Caltech’s audio-visual staff and together we started looking into what was going on in educational television.

Don soon identified a local company called Intelecon that made educational television programs. They would typically pick a subject, get some local academics together to discuss it, and then do on-camera interviews with the academics. The result was relatively cheap instructional television. I had something more ambitious in mind for our series.

One day I invited Sally Beaty, the president of Intelecon for lunch. We discussed what I had in mind, and she was all for giving it a try, provided we could get it financed. As we walked back to my office after lunch, Sally said “What shall we call the series?” I had been reading a book by E.J. Dijksterhuis, called “The Mechanization of the World Picture,” I said, “Let’s call it The Mechanical Universe.” And so it became.

We were casting about for a way of paying for it when Don spotted an announcement in a newspaper that the Annenberg Foundation was putting up millions of dollars to make programs for educational television. We immediately got together with our partners, who were then Intelecon and the Los Angeles public television station KCET, and submitted a proposal for $1.5 million. On the day the Annenberg Board met to consider proposals, I got a call from them asking how much our series would cost without KCET. I said I thought we could get by with $750,000. The next day it was announced that Caltech and Intelecon had been awarded $750,000 to make a series on physics.

That estimate was based largely on Sally’s experience making much less expensive television programs than we were about to make. I went back to Annenberg multiple times in the next few years asking for more money. In the end, instead of $750,000 to make 26 programs about classical mechanics, we got more than $6 million to make 52 programs about all of physics. The Annenberg people were not happy with the price, but they were very happy with the programs we made.

We set out to make the pilot program. It was to be “The Law of Falling Bodies,” the second program in the series. We all understood how important it was, since it had many elements that would be typical of the series, and was therefore a showcase for the entire series. With two or three years to make the entire 26 programs of the initial series, we spent nearly a year on the pilot. That was mainly the call of Peter Buffa, who had been chosen to be the overall director of the series, and who personally directed the pilot. I remember going off to Brazil on a scientific visit with the assignment to write the script, wandering up and down the Copacabana, thinking to myself, how are we going to put the law of falling bodies on television? When I finally wrote a script, it was applauded by the production team, but very little of it made it into the final program.

One important missing ingredient at that point was the computer animation that enlivens and informs the entire series. We could never afford to hire an animation house, which would have cost far more money than we could afford. Instead we approached Jim Blinn, who was then working at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and asked him to do it for us. Jim is an authentic genius, one of the handful of people who lead the field, and we were very lucky to get him. He did the first few programs under contract at JPL, and then transferred to the Mechanical Universe staff where he became a treasured member of the team.

Working with Jim was a special pleasure. Whereas a typical computer animator would have had no idea of what we were trying to teach, Jim and I would discuss each program and he would say something like “The way I always imagined the Lorentz Transformation was…” Jim had a degree in physics as well as a doctorate in computer science, and he was a great collaborator.

Early on in the project, I made a presentation of what we were up to at the Division of Physics, Math and Astronomy at Caltech, after which I was approached by a very worried looking Tom Apostol, a Professor of Mathematics at the Institute. He was afraid that I would botch the teaching of mathematics, as physicists were wont to do. He offered to join the project as the Mathematics Guru, and I accepted. One consequence of that meeting is that the mathematics in the series is every bit as logically sound as the physics.

The production team was ultimately ensconced in a suite of offices in Hollywood and the academic team occupied the Mechanical Universe house at the edge of the Caltech campus. Peter Buffa assembled the production staff of the Mechanical Universe. That included production assistants, two cameramen, and Jack Arnold who would be the chief writer. We took over the house on the edge of the campus as our headquarters, and our little team proceeded to make the pilot program.

Richard Olenick was identified as a member of the academic team after a national search and a secretary was added as well. Steven Frautsci, professor of physics at Caltech also joined the team, and the four of us, Frautsci, Apostol, Olenick and Goodstein, were responsible for the entire series. The production team grew to include an assistant director and a number of production assistants and had a sign on the wall of its headquarters that read, “The most basic human instinct is not sex or hunger, it’s the need to edit someone else’s copy.” And in that way, we set out to make The Mechanical Universe.

The setting for the pilot program was the Seven Flags amusement park, where we got permission to shoot on a day it was closed to the public. In particular, we used the Free Fall, a ride where you were actually in free fall for a couple of seconds before the ride flattened out to bring you to a safe stop, or, as the joke on the program had it, the free fall was free; what you paid for was an arrangement that allowed you to survive. In the program, we introduced Galileo’s reasoning that led to the conclusion that in the absence of air resistance, all bodies would fall at the same rate. It was a beautiful program, but it was hard to justify taking a year to produce it. Still, the Annenberg people liked it, and we were off and running.

Buffa hired some excellent scriptwriters for the series, though not one of them had ever taken a single college-level science course. Their scripts would deal with the playful parts of the programs, but all the physics teaching had to be done by us. They would be rewritten by the head writer Jack Arnold, giving The Mechanical Universe a single voice.  The technical parts were written by Tom Apostol, Jim Blinn and me.

Each program was to last 28 minutes and 38 seconds, and each would start and end with me giving the two-minute opening and closing talk in the classroom.  It was decided (by Peter Buffa) that during the summer of 1983, we would shoot all of the opening and closing sequences for the first 26 programs in the series, before the rest of the programs had been made. In preparation for shooting the openings and closings, I wrote out 30 minute lectures that were supposed to be what was happening in the classroom while the rest of the program unfolded on the screen.  These “treatments” would later form the basis of scripts by the writers.  

The first thing we had to do to get ready for the shoots was to get me some suitable clothing to wear. I was sent out to a department store together with a staffer chosen by Buffa. She picked out a corduroy jacket and a blue blazer, but Buffa nixed a cashmere jacket. Buffa decided that I would wear a jacket and no tie, or no jacket and a tie open at the neck. Much of the time he had me wear a light blue shirt and a maroon tie, but sometimes I wore the jacket instead. The blue blazer turned out to be a disaster because in it, I became almost invisible against the blackboards behind me.

Caltech agreed to let us use the same room where the actual Freshman physics course was taught to film the opening and closing segments. Buffa hired 30 “extras” who sat in the first two rows of the classroom to be my students. Then we shot two programs a day, three days a week. I would stand up and do my thing, with much repeating for the sake of the camera, for the beginning of each lesson, then fill the blackboard behind me with equations and diagrams before doing the closing portion of each program. It turned out to be exhausting work. After we had done our summer’s work, during the weekend before classes started, Buffa got the entire Caltech freshman class to come to the lecture hall (with a promise of free pizza) and he would say something like “O.k., now, a small laugh on 3” and with the camera crew roaming the hall, everyone laughed on the count of 3. Thus, in the programs, when I tell a joke and everyone laughs, the actual laugh came months after the joke.

After we shot the opening and closing segments, the crews would go out to whatever location had been chosen for a given program and get lots of footage, only a small fraction of which would make it into the final program. After that was done, Jim Blinn and I would get together on the technical parts, which he would animate and I would write narration for. He worked mainly at home and I visited him there virtually every day to keep his spirits up and keep him on schedule. That was how we did the first 26 programs, but by the time they were finished we had promised 26 more, so we had a second summer of shooting opening and closing segments. The first 26 programs covered classical mechanics, and the new programs covered the rest of physics including optics, electricity and magnetism, relativity and quantum mechanics.

So we started making programs, not the typical ITV fare, but high quality programs with classy computer animation and actors playing the principal historical figures in the series. We sent crews to Europe and did other things that are simply not done in ITV. When Buffa decided he needed footage in Europe, the production unit took off to go to Italy, Holland and England. They brought back beautiful shots from each of those locations. All in all, The Mechanical Universe set a new standard for ITV.

After a while, rough-cuts of the programs started to arrive at the Mechanical Universe house. The rough-cut would have the opening and closing pieces and the rest of the program with the voice over narration read by one of the technicians at roughly the speed used by Aaron Fletcher, our narrator, and a few scenes that hadn’t been shot yet in black. If the program turned out to be more than a minute too long or too short I would have to do a emergency rewrite (up to one minute too short or too long could be fixed up in the editing).  I would then have to write the narration for the computer animated sequences which were where the physics would be inserted. Jim Blinn would come in after me and read my narration.

By the time we got to do the second 26 programs, this was all a well-oiled machine. We shot the opening and closing segments in the summer of 1986 and polished off the rest of the series after that. I had to do battle with Annenberg for more time and more money, but that was normal by then.

In the second half of the series, one program had a different sort of introduction and conclusion from all of the others. In the Relativity part of the series, one program, when it was finished, came in much too long to be repaired by minor fixes, as had been done with all the other programs. It was decided instead to scrap my opening and closing segments and instead featured our son, Mark, who was then 16, playing a 16-year-old me in 1955, the year Albert Einstein died. That program, like virtually all the others, was a big success.

The last time I went back to Annenberg to increase our funding to $6.5 million they wrote into the contract that we were no longer to share the revenues with them until the revenues amounted to a million dollars. In ITV, a million dollars might as well have been 100 million; no ITV program ever had that kind of revenues. But after five years I got a letter from them saying “you’ve crossed the threshold; from now on you share in the revenues. Of course, after five years there wasn’t much revenue left, but still, it showed how successful we had been.

The Mechanical Universe undertook to teach physics and mathematics, including the calculus. Doing that turned out to be a tall order. It was not adopted as a stand-alone course in many places, but many teachers in high school and college soon came to see it as a valuable resource, and many PBS stations liked it for its own merit. It won many prizes and awards, including the 1987 Japan Prize for television. It’s been translated into many other languages and has been seen all over the world.

When you make a series like the Mechanical Universe, you don’t expect it to receive the kind of publicity that prime-time television shows get, but this series has staying power, and to this day I get e-mails from appreciative fans.

A Weekend With Richard Feynman and Jim Watson

Soon after arriving at Caltech, I became good friends with Richard Feynman, the great pioneer of modern physics, who was a professor at Caltech. We used to spend a good deal of time together, talking about science, teaching, society, and many things.


One day, Feynman came to my office to say that he had received an invitation to speak at the University of Chicago. Of course, he received invitations to speak almost every day, but he didn’t usually come to me with them.  


“I’m not gonna go,” he said, “I have nothing to say.” Obviously, it was my job to turn him around. 


“What about all the great things we’ve been talking about?” I said. 


“I’ll tell you what,” he replied, “I’ll go if you’ll come with me.” 


This was a great opportunity. I’d get to spend four or five days with this great man. I accepted his invitation.


When I went to the airport to go to Chicago, Feynman was already there, wearing a sport jacket! It was February, we were going to bitter cold Chicago and he didn’t have an overcoat. I asked him why not and he said, “On these trips they ferry you around from place to place. I don’t need an overcoat.” 


As it turned out, one evening we had dinner at the home of Val and Leah Telegdi which was about three blocks from where we were staying, and he paid the price for being without an overcoat. Val Telegdi was a well known physicist, and Leah Telegdi had a considerable reputation as a gourmet chef, and she made us pheasant that had been taken in the woods north of Chicago by a friend of theirs. It was delicious. Dick and Val Telegdi spent the evening talking physics and other things while I eagerly listened in.


I woke up the morning of  Feynman’s talk and wandered into Feynman’s part of our room, but Feynman warned me off, saying, “This,” he said “is the creative moment.” 


He was preparing his talk, which was called “The Uncreative Scientist.” He thought that title would induce the non-scientists at Chicago to come and listen. That afternoon he gave his talk. In it he discussed the things we had talked about and much more. It was very well received.


The next morning I slept a little late and wandered down to the dining room in a bit of a fog. Feynman was already there, having breakfast with another man. I sat down and joined them, introductions were mumbled and not heard, and I went on sleepily slurping my coffee and listening to the conversation. 


It gradually became clear to me that the other man was Jim Watson, co-discoverer of the double helical nature of DNA. He had a manuscript with him that he wanted Feynman to read and possibly endorse. At the end of breakfast, Feynman kept the manuscript and we all shook hands. 


That evening, our last in Chicago, there was a party for Feynman in the faculty club. I attended and was having a good time when Wayne Booth came up to me and said, “Where is Professor Feynman?” I agreed to go look for him. 


I went up to our room and found Feynman reading Watson’s manuscript. I said, “Dick, this party is in your honor, you’ve got to come down and be part of it.” So, he reluctantly put down the manuscript, put on a tie, and joined the party. After dinner, he excused himself at the earliest moment allowed by cordiality and went back to our room. I was still having a good time and stayed until much later.


When I went back to our room, I found Feynman sitting up and waiting for me.


“You’ve got to read this book,” he said. 


“That’s great, I’ll look forward to it.” I replied. 


“No,” he said, “I mean right now.” 


And so, from 2 a.m. until 6 a.m. I sat up and read Watson’s book with Feynman looming before me drawing figures on a piece of paper. 


At a certain point I said to Dick, “This guy must be either very good or very lucky, because he keeps saying he was an outsider and didn’t know anything about the field, and yet he participated in making the key discovery.” 


Feynman dashed across the room and stuck the piece of paper he was working on under my nose. It had on it one word illuminated by drawings of figures like a medieval manuscript. The word was DISREGARD. 


“That’s what I had forgotten,” Feynman said. “You have to disregard what other people are doing and follow your own instinct!” 


Feynman had made many contributions to physics but was then in a fallow period. I don’t know if that really was what got him out of it, but he went on after that to make many more brilliant contributions.


When breakfast time came that morning, Feynman was already gone. I went down to the dining room and had breakfast with Jim Watson. I told him then that Feynman would indeed write a testimonial for his book, which finally came out nearly a year later. Watson’s original title for the book was “Honest Jim,” but when it finally appeared it was called “The Double Helix.” 


If you have a first edition hardback copy of it, you’ll find a testimonial in it from Feynman. The details were worked out between Dick and Jim, of course, but I was the messenger who brought the word to Jim that Feynman would do it. 

Richard Feynman 

and Quantum Electrodynamics

When Richard Feynman was a young boy, the science of physics was taking some very strange turns. Even before he was born, in 1905, Albert Einstein had astonished the world of physics by showing, in his theory of relativity, that the speed with which light traveled through empty space was so absolutely constant that time and space themselves could get mixed up together to keep it so. 

Richard Feynman was about eight years old when scientists in Europe devised a new theory of nature called quantum mechanics, in which particles were sometimes waves, and waves were sometimes particles, and things that had seemed to be certain became uncertain, and things that had seemed to be uncertain became certain. 

These mind-bending new views of nature and the new mysteries they revealed were the frontiers of human knowledge that awaited as Richard Feynman grew up.

Physics had always concerned itself with matter, forces and light, and how these things were related to one another. Hundreds of years earlier, Isaac Newton had explained how one kind of force, gravity, guided the planets in the heavens. In the centuries that followed, it gradually became clear that gravity was not the only force in nature. There was also electricity, the force between electrically charged particles, and magnetism, the force between magnets.

Then it turned out that these were not separate things at all. Electricity could create magnetism, and magnetism could create electricity, and, most surprising of all, both together could create light! That’s where things stood when relativity and quantum mechanics came along. 

Each of these theories, relativity and quantum mechanics, worked brilliantly for the things they were designed to explain, but when you crammed them all together, they didn’t seem to fit. That was the problem that Richard Feynman turned to when he finished serving his country at the atom bomb project at Los Alamos after the Second World War. 

He succeeded in solving an important part of the problem with a new theory called Quantum Electrodynamics. Two other scientists, Julian Schwinger and Sinichiro Tomonaga, each working alone, found equivalent solutions using different approaches, and for that accomplishment, the three of them shared the Nobel Prize in 1965.

Of the three approaches, however, Richard Feynman’s was by far the most original and most important. What he accomplished amounted to reinventing quantum mechanics in a whole new way that incorporated Einstein’s relativity. His theory explains how electrically charged particles can exert electric and magnetic forces on one another by exchanging particles of light (or at least by seeming to do that; quantum mechanics is very strange). 

The biggest part of the answer to the calculation came from the two charged particles exchanging one light quantum, called a photon. One particle emits the photon and the other absorbs it. Not a real photon because that would violate various laws of physics, but an imaginary one that physicists call a virtual photon. Such virtual photons are permitted in the middle of an interaction so long as they don’t exist before or after it.

But if the two particles can exchange one virtual photon, why not exchange two? The answer is, they can exchange two, but that’s much less probable. In Feynman’s strange world, anything that can happen does happen, but if it’s less probable, it has less effect on the final answer. So, to get a more accurate answer, you have to do the more laborious calculation that involves two virtual photons. And three. And four. And so on, all the way to infinity to get an infinitely accurate answer. 

Using that weird idea, he developed ways of calculating properties of nature with amazing precision, if you were willing to do an amazing amount of calculating. And, to organize and keep track of those ever-increasingly difficult calculations, he invented the famous Feynman Diagrams, which are widely used by physicists to this very day.

Quantum Electrodynamics, like Newton’s theory of Gravity, doesn’t explain everything, but what it does explain it explains very, very well. And, Feynman’s new approach to quantum mechanics, and the Feynman Diagrams he invented have helped many other physicists solve many other problems. Richard Feynman himself would go on to many other great accomplishments, but none would be more important than Quantum Electrodynamics.

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