While as yet unproven, a promising theorem in particle physics states that physicists are people, too. (If you prick them—the theorem goes—they are likely to bleed, etc.) So far, the strongest support for this idea is the anecdotal evidence of Richard Feynman, a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who was almost certainly a person.

Feynman’s reputation for humanizing buffoonery included his ability to open supposedly secure safes—a skill he honed while working on the atom bomb at Los Alamos Lab during the Second World War.

First, Feynman noticed that safe dials were not as precise as they might be—while a combination might include the number 42, Feynman found the adjoining numbers 40, 41, 43 and 44 also worked. This narrowed the total possibilities from nearly 1,000,000 (100-cubed) to only 8,000 (20-cubed). With practice, Feynman found he could try 400 combinations in thirty minutes, so even in the unlikely case of opening the safe on the last possible permutation it could take a maximum of only ten hours.

Still, who has ten hours to spare when also racing Nazi Germany into the atomic age?

If Feynman could define one of a combination’s three numbers, then opening the lock could only take him a maximum of half an hour (20-squared combinations). To do this, when in a colleague’s office with the safe open, Feynman would pretend to idly play with the lock. In fact, he found that a lock only resets itself after spinning past the first number in its combination. So Feynman would turn the combination lock, going one number further each time until the lock clicked shut, at which point he would know he had found the combination’s first number.

Voila—half an hour, tops.

In fact, it usually took much less time, as Feynman first tried psychologically likely numbers—the factory preset, birthdays, phone numbers, or—most commonly at Los Alamos—a snippet of the number pi.



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