Thursday, May 11, 2006

Surely your birthday, Mr. Feynman

It seems to be keenly appropriate that I've been talking about quantum physics today; Bora points out that Richard Feynman was born today in 1918. To celebrate, I thought I'd share my favorite excerpt from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman:
When I was a junior or a senior I used to eat at a certain restaurant in Boston. I went there by myself, often on successive evenings. People got to know me, and I had the same waitress all the time.

I noticed that they were always in a hurry, rushing around, so one day, just for fun, I left my tip, which was usually ten cents (normal for those days), in two nickels, under two glasses: I filled each glass to the very top, dropped a nickel in, and with a card over it, turned it over so it was upside down on the table. Then I slipped out the card (no water leaks out because no air can come in -- the rim is too close to the table for that).

I put the tip under two glasses because I knew they were always in a hurry. If the tip was a dime in one glass, the waitress, in her haste to get the table ready for the next customer, would pick up the glass, the water would spill out, and that would be the end of it. But after she does that with the first glass, what the hell is she going to do with the second one? She can't just have the nerve to lift it up now!

On the way out I said to my waitress, "Be careful, Sue. There's something funny about the glasses you gave me -- they're filled in on the top, and there's a hole on the bottom!"

The next day I came back, and I had a new waitress. My regular waitress wouldn't have anything to do with me. "Sue's very angry at you," my new waitress said, "After she picked up the first glass and water went all over the place, she called the boss out. They studied it a little bit, but they couldn't spend all day figuring out what to do, so they finally picked up the other one, and water went out again, all over the floor. It was a terrible mess; Sue slipped later in the water. They're all mad at you."

I laughed.

She said, "It's not funny! How would you like it if someone did that to you -- what would you do?"

"I'd get a soup plate and then slide the glass very carefully over to the edge of the table, and let the water run into the soup plate - it doesn't have to run onto the floor. Then I'd take the nickel out."

"Oh, that's a good idea," she said.

That evening I left my tip under a coffee cup, which I left upside down on the table.

The next night I came and I had the same new waitress.

"What's the idea of leaving the cup upside down last time?"

"Well, I thought that even though you were in a hurry, you'd have to go back into the kitchen and get a soup plate; then you'd have to sloooowly and carefully slide the cup over to the edge of the table..."

"I did that," she complained, "but there was no water in it!"


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