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By Richard Girard


I am reading Professor Richard P. Feynman's book, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, his collection of autobiographical anecdotes published in 1985. I am saying reading, because while I am relatively certain I have read it--or at least parts of it--before, there are some parts that I do not remember reading, and I know it was not in my personal library until I found a copy in the 25 bin at the local used bookstore. I think I either read it while house sitting for someone in the late 80's, or read excerpts in various magazines like Playboy and Omni, and then never bothered to buy my own copy.

Professor Feynman had a light and irreverent style that made him easy to understand and read, and he manages to keep his reader interested even when discussing his undergraduate days at MIT, or his graduate work at Princeton.

One of his most interesting anecdotes involves the time he was working for the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, where he got a reputation as a " safecracker. "

Mr. Feynman had learned lock-picking from an acquaintance when he was a teenager, and had reason to use his skill at Los Alamos when a fellow scientist was out of town and one of the project's chief scientists needed a report from the first scientist's locked file cabinet.

Soon after Los Alamos switched from key lock filing cabinets to Mosler combination lock filing cabinets. Mr. Feynman got his reputation as a safecracker by first taking apart his own combination lock filing cabinet to see how it worked, and then applying various dodges (noting the last two numbers of a combination, which were visible when the top drawer was open; learning that you could feel a soft click when you passed a correct number in the combination, etc.) to open the drawers, together with bad security and some plain dumb luck. In other words, many of the same problems that plague computer security today.

I would argue that if Professor Feynman had been born four decades later, we might never have heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. Many of the strategies he used to crack safe combinations and uncover the secrets of quantum electrodynamics and the weak nuclear force are equally viable for computer hacking and programming, especially the idea of understanding how the device you are working with actually works. Had Richard Feynman grown up in the 1970's or 80's, he probably would have been one of the top computer innovators, or at least one of the world's great hackers.

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Richard Girard is a polymath and autodidact whose greatest desire in life is to be his generations' Thomas Paine. He is an FDR Democrat, which probably puts him with U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders in the current political spectrum. His answer to (more...)

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