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The Surprising Significance of a Wobbly Plate

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Mar 7, 2013    •    342 Views

Thinking about how something seemingly frivolous can be wonderfully productive took me to Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. His wobbly plate story (when he taught at Cornell) is marvelous. He describes it in this excerpt from his book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

“…I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate–two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! …

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it…I was “playing”…

I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ‘Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is…’ and I show him the accelerations. He says, ‘Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it? ‘Hah!’ I say. ‘There’s no importance whatsoever…’

…There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

For some creativity fun, here is the Oreo Separator:

Sources and Resources: Very readable and full of great stories that Dr. Feynman tells about his life, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a great book. The excerpt from the Feynman book, published by W.W. Norton, is at Amazon, pp. 173-174.

Please note that this post has been edited and renamed.

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