/ Epistemology / Sentience / Semiotics /
Watching a DVD of the Houdini biopic Death Defying Feats I’m reminded of Richard Feynman. See the relationship? There is one, a huge one: I say that Richard Feynman, one of the great scientists of the Twentieth Century, the premier calculator / computer of the Manhattan Project, learned a lot of his science from Houdini, long before institutions like MIT, Princeton … the Pentagon could take credit for him.
Read some Houdini, read an autobiography or two of Dr. Richard Feynman, and you’ll see what I mean without my having to say it. Houdini knew what common sense thought; but: he also actually observed the world, studied phenomena without prejudice. Not one-in-a-million, one in a couple of hundred million.
Houdini didn’t just hear what the salesman said about the lock, he didn’t just listen to what the cops said about the jail, he didn’t check with his priest, or rabbi, before venturing to comment on what he believed or thought: he actually studied the lock! the jail! He saw how the lock could be opened by his bare hands, with some hard pressure here! or by palming a key that the friskers missed.
Feynman did hear what the salesmen said about the safes in the Pentagon: and saw that the scientists in the Pentagon, the bureaucrats, the generals, the secretaries were not following the safe manufacturuer’s instructions! Buying the new car won’t help long if you don’t bother to change the oil, if you don’t even learn that you ought to change the oil.
Well, Americans do change their oil; but they don’t fool with locks until they can open them with their bare hands, open them with regurgitated keys. They don’t oversee their generals to make sure that the generals changed the default combination on the safe, or programed a combination other than their own birthday, that the high level physicist didn’t use the number pi.
Feynman would walk around the Pentagon and leave “Kilroy was here” notes in the safes he found in random offices. The US was in hysterics about Soviet spies: meantime, any soviet spy who’d successfully sneaked into the Pentagon could see what the combinatin of the safe was, with the tiniest bit of special preparation, by seeing that the general’s secretary had left the safe door open! and the office door open! The secretary was giving the nation’s secrets away, she didn’t need to be tricked or tortured.
Yeah, but here’s an example I adore: very much a la Houdini. Feynman would be a a party. He’d say that he was going to play bloodhound. He’d leave the room, the party would select someone to be it, the party would select some personal item from the it person, a hankie, a sock … Feynman would come in, would make a display of sniffing the sock: then he’d go around the room sniffing the people who’s sock it could possibly be. Shown the lady’s hankie, don’t bother to sniff Fred, at least not first: shown a man’s sock, don’t dive on Betty and sniff her everywhere …
So: Feynman sniffs the sock, sniffs Fred, Harry, Joe: says, It’s Joe’s!
How’d he do that? People would clamor for the secret. Feynman could never convince them: there was no secret: he sniffed the sock, then he sniffed Joe, Sam, Tom: it was Joe’s! Human sense of smell isn’t quite as bad as advertised: try it and see. At least Feynman’s sense of smell wasn’t as bad as the smell advertised for humans.
I remember reading an article in a magazine, ’50s, ’60s, where the reported lived among junkies who lived by theft. The journalist and the junkie arrive at a NY apartment building, the journalist rings the bell for 4E, or fumbles for his keys to the entrance door … Don’t bother with that, says the junkie, and slips a credit card, not his of course, under the tumblers. Two seconds, the door is open! Your average junkie could open your average door long before your average resident could enter their own domicile!
As I read Houdini as a young man I’d never heard of Feynman, not consciously. As I read Feynman as a middle aged man, I very much thought of Houdini: because Feynman kept crediting him: Feynman was impressed at how Houdini studied locks, jails, straight jackets …
Houdini’s stage assistants manacle him and hang him upside down in the water tank, lower a curtain over the tank. Houdini’s stage manager ostentatiously times the routine: there’s the covered tank, there’s the manager holding a stop watch, looking anxious as three minutes pass … They yank the curtain off the tank, ready with axes. But Houdini is in the third row of the balcony, where he’s been since two minutes ago, smiling, waving … profiting from the adulation.
I heard from an army buddy that Houdini was visiting London. His big-wig hosts asked for a trick. He said, Sure, request something hard. Request something impossible. The VIPs talk and yak, Gee, he’s letting us choose the stunt! The VIPs propose this or that, Houdini says, Nah, too easy. Finally somebody says, Make Big Ben strike thirteen times at midnight!
Bingo, says Houdini, That’s a good one. Tonight! It’s already 10 PM. Let’s just sit right here, have another glass of port. Keep your eye on me, see that I don’t leave the room, see that I speak to no staff member.
They sit still and Big Ben strikes thirteen at midnight!!!
How’d he do that?
Locks weren’t all Houdini studied: he studied people, and groups, and illusion.
Houdini had already rigged Big Ben before he went to the dinner! All he had to do was reject every suggestion until someone asked for Big Ben. The group was in his traces, under his reins.