Wednesday, September 30, 2015

February 15, 1988 - Richard Feynman Announces Bid for Governor

After becoming increasingly political following the Challenger space shuttle disaster, Richard Feynman declared his bid for the governorship of California to resolve what he saw as a horrific failure for potential in applied sciences. His conclusions arose during the preparations of the Rogers Report, during which chair and former Secretary of State William Rogers said, “Feynman is becoming a real pain.”

The source of the pain was said to be Feynman’s hands-on approach during investigations of the booster rocket O-ring seals, which were dubbed by NASA managers to have a “safety factor of 3” since they only burned one-third of the way through during stress tests. Feynman told Congress that such damage was actually a safety factor of 0 since they incurred damage at all. He railed NASA officials for further bad mathematics stemming from a break in communication between engineers and administrators.

Feynman’s announcement was seen as politically absurd since it was so early, something fittingly uncouth for Feynman’s curious career. Born in 1918 to Jewish parents and maintaining his deep Bronx accent throughout his life, Feynman began tinkering with science early on, disassembling and reassembling his first radio. He soon began repairing radios professionally since he learned how the pieces worked and used the money to fund a laboratory for himself. After graduating MIT and Princeton, Dr. Feynman began his career exploring theoretical quantum physics. Fellow physicists got Feynman working with the Manhattan Project, which brought him to Los Alamos. He complained, “There wasn’t anything to do there.”

To keep himself entertained, Feynman learned how to pick locks after faking being a renowned lock-pick by fishing papers out of a desk’s locked drawer by pulling out the unlocked drawer beneath it and reaching up the back to fish pages out one at a time. Feynman and his wife pranked the censors at Los Alamos by writing letters in code and on the back of a puzzle the censors had to complete before they could review it. This lasted until they wrote him politely to stop.

Suffering depression after the death of his wife and seeing the destructive use of the atomic bomb both in 1945, Feynman dedicated himself to science at Caltech. His work in physics furthered quantum theory, and toward the end of his career Feynman began focusing on computing. At Los Alamos, Feynman had headed the computation department, creating a complicated and exceedingly efficient method of assembly line calculations for the “human computer” pool. He later contributed to punch-card programming and by the ‘80s was working on parallel computers to do multifaceted calculations. His fame (such as being one of the few foreign members of the Royal Society of science and his 1965 Nobel Prize) brought him into a position to be requested onto the Rogers Report.

As Feynman continued to rattle political cages and gain press coverage, sitting governor Republican George Deukmejian decided to bid for a third term, campaigning on stability while the Democratic race was divided with Feynman, San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein, and actor James Garner. Ultimately Feynman won, said to be victorious thanks to contributions from businessmen hoping to expand academic NSFNET systems into a civilian computer communication network as well as his wild charisma in an age ready for something new.

During his term of governorship, Feynman worked to invest in science. He mandated that administrators have a solid understanding of physical principles, creating an unpopular turnover in much of the executive branch, yet he stood by his saying, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” After the transition, his actions proved popular as the press ate up Feynman’s education programs and his bold claims about computing networks were proven correct by the World Wide Web, which caused business to surge in Silicon Valley.

Feynman’s campaign to pick up a Superconducting Super Collider that had been given up in Texas fell on deaf ears, but his continuing feud with NASA did lead to a great deal of interest in private space travel. In the years after Feynman’s death in 2000, the desert in Southeastern California began to buzz with experimental craft. Although perhaps not as glamorous, Feynman’s policies were also credited with the whistle-blowing on Enron’s power manipulation shortly after deregulation as officials quickly recognized the flaw in their consumption arguments.


In reality, although he mentioned an interest in politics in 1966, Richard Feynman did not pursue it and died from cancer in 1988. Dianne Feinstein went on the Democratic ticket to nearly overcome Republican Pete Wilson for the 1990 California governorship. Feinstein instead went on to the Senate in 1992, where she has remained since as a voice for assault weapon regulation and chairs the Select Committee on Intelligence.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Guest Post from Chris Oakley: D.B. Cooper Arrested

November 24th, 1971--

FBI agents acting on an anonymous tip arrested would-be hijacker D.B. Cooper just minutes before Cooper was scheduled to board a Northwest Airlines flight to Seattle. According to the tipster. Cooper had been talking to someone named 'Raoul' from an airport payphone while waiting for his flight to begin boarding; Cooper's plan had been to take the plane over in midflight, then parachute to safety once he had extorted $200,000 from local authorities. Subsequent investigation revealed that 'Raoul' was a pseudonym for a high-level station chief with Cuba's DGI counterintelligence service and Cooper was actually one Dmitri Kaprinsky, a KGB agent who had operating in the United States since the late 1950s and only a week before his arrest had made up his mind to leave the country after becoming convinced his cover was about to be blown. The apparent hijacking plot, it turned out, was actually just a highly elaborate cover for Kaprinsky's escape back to the Soviet Union-- once he parachuted from the Northwest jet, he planned to make his way to the Oregon coast and rendezvous with a Soviet submarine to complete his journey home. ('Raoul' would commit suicide shortly after his role in Kaprinsky's escape plan was exposed.)

Kaprinsky was subsequently indicted in a San Francisco federal court on espionage charges; desperate to keep him from divulging sensitive information about Soviet espionage activity in the U.S. the KGB sent a “black ops” hit squad to assassinate him only to have the hit squad's mission go badly awry when they were intercepted in Los Angeles by U.S. federal agents and L.A.P.D. SWAT personnel. In the ensuing gun battle, most of the hit squad personnel including the team leader were killed. In early 1972 Kaprinsky was convicted of espionage, conspiracy to commit hijacking, and attempted assault with a lethal weapon(he'd tried to stab one of the FBI agents who arrested him) and given a prison sentence of 30 years to life; he would serve thirteen years of that sentence before dying from cardiac arrest on April 9th, 1985. Shortly after his death, his body was flown back to the Soviet Union and laid to rest in his old hometown in the Ukraine. At the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991 most of the FBI personnel who had been involved in probing the D.B. Cooper/Dmitri Kaprinsky case were either retired or on the verge of retiring, although some of them would return to the bureau after 9/11 to serve as consultants on anti-terrorist operations.

The Cooper/Kaprinsky saga had one rather fascinating pop culture postscript: in April of 1990, five years after Kaprinsky's death, ABC-TV premiered the drama Twin Peaks, a crime series whose protagonist was suspected to have been inspired by the late KGB agent-- a suspicion the series' creator, David Lynch, would confirm two decades later in an audio commentary for the Twin Peaks DVD set. Lynch explained that his choice of a name for the main character, Dale Prince, had been a play on both Kaprinsky's true identity and the alias Kaprinsky used in his thwarted hijacking plot.


In reality D.B. Cooper's real name and ultimate fate are still a mystery, although the FBI has at one time or another investigated at least nine possible suspects in the 1972 hijacking. In 1981 the movie The Pursuit Of D.B. Cooper was released to less-than-enthusiastic reviews by film critics and a largely indifferent reception from audiences, but in spite of the movie's box office failure Cooper remains an object of pop culture fascination to this day. No evidence has been uncovered as yet to suggest the KGB was even aware of D.B. Cooper's existence, much less had him on their payroll as an agent.

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