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<nettime> Get More Mileage with Feynman's Van
Soenke Zehle on Wed, 30 Mar 2005 15:12:38 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Get More Mileage with Feynman's Van

The idea that brevity and bigger pictures go together pretty well has 
been around at least since Burma-Shave, if not Ockham's Razor, but maybe 
there's a need for another car-cultural analogy. Re PP: not really a 
surprise, given the (rhetorical) havoc pp has already wreaked in board- 
and classrooms across the planet, sz

March 28, 2005
The Feynman-Tufte Principle
A visual display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van
By Michael Shermer
I had long wanted to meet Edward R. Tufte--the man the New York Times
called "the da Vinci of data" because of his concisely written and
artfully illustrated books on the visual display of data--and invite him
to speak at the Skeptics Society science lecture series that I host at
the California Institute of Technology. Tufte is one of the world's
leading experts on a core tool of skepticism: how to see through
information obfuscation.

But how could we afford someone of his stature? "My honorarium," he told
me, "is to see Feynman's van."

Richard Feynman, the late Caltech physicist, is famous for working on
the atomic bomb, winning a Nobel Prize in Physics, cracking safes,
playing drums and driving a 1975 Dodge Maxivan adorned with squiggly
lines on the side panels. Most people who saw it gazed in puzzlement,
but once in a while someone would ask the driver why he had Feynman
diagrams all over his van, only to be told, "Because I'm Richard Feynman!"

Feynman diagrams are simplified visual representations of the very
complex world of quantum electrodynamics (QED), in which particles of
light called photons are depicted by wavy lines, negatively charged
electrons are depicted by straight or curved nonwavy lines, and line
junctions show electrons emitting or absorbing a photon. In the diagram
on the back door of the van, seen in the photograph above with Tufte,
time flows from bottom to top. The pair of electrons (the straight
lines) are moving toward each other. When the left-hand electron emits a
photon (wavy-line junction), that negatively charged particle is
deflected outward left; the right-hand electron reabsorbs the photon,
causing it to deflect outward right.

Feynman diagrams are the embodiment of what Tufte teaches about
analytical design: "Good displays of data help to reveal knowledge
relevant to understanding mechanism, process and dynamics, cause and
effect." We see the unthinkable and think the unseeable. "Visual
representations of evidence should be governed by principles of
reasoning about quantitative evidence. Clear and precise seeing becomes
as one with clear and precise thinking."

The master of clear and precise thinking meets the master of clear and
precise seeing in what I call the Feynman-Tufte Principle: a visual
display of data should be simple enough to fit on the side of a van.

As Tufte poignantly demonstrated in his analysis of the space shuttle
Challenger disaster, despite the 13 charts prepared for NASA by Thiokol
(the makers of the solid-rocket booster that blew up), they failed to
communicate the link between cool temperature and O-ring damage on
earlier flights. The loss of the Columbia, Tufte believes, was directly
related to "a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyperrationalism" in
which a single slide contained six different levels of hierarchy
(chapters and subheads), thereby obfuscating the conclusion that damage
to the left wing might have been significant. In his 1970 classic work
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman covered all of physics--from
celestial mechanics to quantum electrodynamics--with only two levels of

Tufte codified the design process into six principles: "(1) documenting
the sources and characteristics of the data, (2) insistently enforcing
appropriate comparisons, (3) demonstrating mechanisms of cause and
effect, (4) expressing those mechanisms quantitatively, (5) recognizing
the inherently multivariate nature of analytic problems, (6) inspecting
and evaluating alternative explanations." In brief, "information
displays should be documentary, comparative, causal and explanatory,
quantified, multivariate, exploratory, skeptical."

Skeptical. How fitting for this column, opus 50 for me, because when I
asked Tufte to summarize the goal of his work, he said, "Simple design,
intense content." Because we all need a mark at which to aim (one
meaning of "skeptic"), "simple design, intense content" is a sound
objective for this series.

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