Safe Cracking A La Feynman
    By Garth Sundem | October 19th 2009 06:00 AM | 6 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Garth

    Garth Sundem is a Science, Math and general Geek Culture writer, TED speaker, and author of books including Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish the...

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    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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    I voted for Tesla.  He looks like he really knows what he's doing and will be adventurous. 
    Good article yet another thing I did not know about my favorite nutty kooky prof. 

    By the by how'd you get the poll feature to work?  I tried a couple days ago and no joy. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Garth Sundem
    Thanks, Hontas,Yep—the poll function deleted my info once, but the second time was a charm. Personally, I have a massive man-crush on Sir Isaac Newton, "bad boy of 18th century alchemy." Although, I think much of his work was derivative...


    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    I saw a guy get shot in a grad school rathskellar one time for implying such a thing.   

    Hooke was a punk.   Newton invented calculus to prove it.  :)
    Garth Sundem
    But his work's "derivative" Eh? Eh? I've been waiting YEARS to make that joke.

    Garth Sundem, TED speaker, Wipeout loser and author of Brain Trust

    I got the joke.  If I was in the company of physicist where I am I would literally LOL. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    But for a different take on "Integral", I suggest the novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
    Robert H. Olley / Quondam Physics Department / University of Reading / England