Fun_People Archive
23 Jan
The Feynman bowling-ball anecdote & two offspring

Date: Sun, 23 Jan 94 19:46:02 PST
To: Fun_People
Subject: The Feynman bowling-ball anecdote & two offspring

 From: Keith Bostic <bostic@vangogh.CS.Berkeley.EDU>
 Subject: RP Feynman

Michael Scott, who became the first president of Apple Computer in 1977 and
semiretired in 1981 after Apple went public, graduated from the California
Institute of Technology in 1965.  His class was taught freshman and sophomore
physics by the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, which course was the
basis of the famous /Feynman Lectures on Physics/.  In pledging $1.5 million
to endow the Richard P. Feynman Professorship at Caltech, and stipulating
that the selection process for this chair include special consideration of
the teaching ability of the recipient, Scott recounted the first class meeting
in the Bridge Laboratory lecture hall:

"There were 183 of us freshmen, and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story
ceiling to just above the floor.  Feynman walked in and, without a word,
grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose.
He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back -
stopping naturally just short of crushing his face.  Then he took the ball
again, stepped forward, and said:  "I wanted to show you that I believe in
what I'm going to teach you over the next two years."

 From: Matt Crawford <>

Yeah, I heard about the endowment of the Feynman chair.  And as for the
bowling-ball demo, you can relay this anecdote back to your list if you
like ...

When I took the same freshman physics class in 1974-75, in the same lecture
hall ("201 Bridge -- it snows here even on the hottest days!")  the same
demo was performed.  (Actually, the pendulum bob was not a bowling ball by
this time, but a shiny brass sphere about 18 inches in diameter.)  The first
quarter of the course was taught by a hot young field theorist and

As she released the massive pendulum, she gave it a slight push, then calmly
awaited its return.  Another professor saw the push, leaped from his seat
in the front row, and tackled the first professor out of the way, a few
moments before the pendulum returned and lightly kissed the wall.
 From: Peter Langston <>

By now, the Feynman bowling-ball demo has become such a standard conservation
demonstration that I've heard it convincingly used as part of a proof of a
rather different nature.  Nat Howard <> put it to me this way,
(I'm paraphrasing from memory) "Practical telekinesis doesn't work.  Let's just
suppose for a moment that some small percentage of the population could move
objects from a distance simply by using their minds, especially if several such
people worked together.  How many smug physics teachers doing the bowling-ball
demo for huge first-year physics classes would be undergoing reconstructive
surgery right now?  I know if I had had any telekinetic powers..."

[=] © 1994 Peter Langston []