Millions of Americans watched in shock on Jan. 28, 1986 as the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard. Two weeks later, millions also watched the hearing of the presidential commission investigating the disaster. In a scene widely rebroadcast, commissioners were invited to handle some rubbery material from the shuttle’s O-ring — a gasket in the solid rocket booster. Then the maverick on the panel, physicist Richard Feynman, asked for some ice water and dropped the sample, gripped in a clamp, into it. After only a few seconds, the formerly flexible material lost its resilience and didn’t spring back. At a temperature far warmer than the depths of space, it had clearly lost its ability to seal.
“I believe that has some significance for our problem,” Feynman said, with dramatic understatement. His accusation that NASA had failed to calculate the true risks of the mission has resonated for decades.
The Science Channel re-creates the O-ring drama, with William Hurt as Feynman, in a new docudrama, “The Challenger Disaster.” Co-produced with the BBC, the movie portrays the flamboyant Nobel laureate as an independent investigator searching for truth amid the murkiness of Washington politics.
The movie premieres Saturday on the Science Channel and the Discovery Channel.
It’s a cliche: Some of us are good at math and science and some of us are artistically creative, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But like most cliches, it’s an overstatement. A new iPhone app beautifully demonstrates how mathematics is present throughout the natural world. Called Frax, it puts something called fractals “in the palm of your hand,” in the words of its co-creator Ben Weiss.
What’s a fractal? To oversimplify, it’s a repeating pattern found in nature: seashells, snowflakes, galaxies, crystals, fiddlehead ferns, oil spills. “There’s this moment of awakening where you understand that the natural patterns that you’ve been seeing your entire life are actually based on simple mathematical formulas. And once you’re aware of those patterns — be it the spiral shape of a galaxy or the whirl of a hurricane or the swirls of cream in your morning coffee — you’re able to recognize them anywhere,” Weiss wrote in a blog post about the app on Smithsonianmag.com.
Frax users begin with a shape from the app’s library of fractals. Then they manipulate the shape — adding color, texture, lighting and so on. While most doodlers will just want to create something beautiful, Weiss said, his creative team is also hoping to “inspire users to want to learn more about the underlying math and geometry, in the same way that looking through a telescope can inspire interest in astronomy and science.” The app costs $1.99; you can see the cool images for free, though, on the app’s Web site, www.fract.al.