The Best Teacher I Never Had

Thirty years ago I went on vacation and fell for Richard Feynman.

A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

In 1965, Feynman shared a Nobel Prize for work on particle physics. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that honor, the California Institute of Technology—where he taught for many years before his death in 1988—asked for some thoughts about what made him so special. Here’s the video I sent:

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge—you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching. These teachers aren’t famous, but they deserve just as much respect and admiration as someone like Feynman. If there were a Nobel for making high school algebra exciting and fun, I know a few teachers I would nominate.

Incidentally, Feynman wasn’t famous just for being a great teacher and a world-class scientist; he was also quite a character. He translated Mayan hieroglyphics. He loved to play the bongos. While helping develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he entertained himself by figuring out how to break into the safes that contained top-secret research. (Feynman cultivated this image as a colorful guy. His colleague Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize–winner in his own right, once remarked, “Feynman was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”)

Here are some suggestions if you’d like to know more about Feynman or his work:

  • The Messenger Lectures on Physics. These are the talks that first captivated me back in the 1980s and that you see briefly in the video above. The site is a few years old, but you can watch for free along with some helpful commentary.
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher is a collection of the most accessible parts of Feynman’s famous Caltech lectures on physics.
  • He recounted his adventures in two very good books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? You won’t learn a lot about physics, but you’ll have a great time hearing his stories.


The Advanced Nuclear Industry

By Samuel Brinton  Published June 15, 2015


The American energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar and wind power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats).

What has gone largely unnoticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list.

A new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and investors are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors.

This is being driven by a sobering reality—the need to add enough electricity to get power to the 1.3 billion people around the world who don’t have it while making deep cuts in carbon emissions to effectively combat climate change.

Third Way has found that there are nearly 50 companies, backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital, developing plans for new nuclear plants in the U.S. and Canada. The mix includes startups and big-name investors like Bill Gates, all placing bets on a nuclear comeback, hoping to get the technology in position to win in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.

This report introduces you to the advanced nuclear industry in North America. It includes the most comprehensive set of details about who’s working on these reactor designs and where. We describe the money and momentum building behind advanced nuclear, and how the technology has evolved since the Golden Age of Nuclear.

To be clear, this is not your grandfather’s nuclear technology. While developers in some cases are working off of technology designs conceived in our national laboratories during the 1950s and 1960s, the advanced reactor technologies being developed are safer, more efficient and need a fraction of the footprint compared to the nearly 100 light water reactors (LWRs) that provide almost 20% of the U.S.’s electricity today (and 65% of its carbon-free power). New plants could be powered entirely with spent nuclear fuel sitting at plant sites across the country, built at a lower cost than LWRs and shut down more easily in an emergency.

The need for nuclear power has never been clearer. To stem climate change, the world needs 40% of electricity to come from zero-emissions sources, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). While we can and must grow renewable energy generation, it alone will leave us far short of meeting that demand, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have said. This is why the IPCC in November issued an urgent call for more non-emitting power, including the construction of more than 400 nuclear plants in the next 20 years. That would represent a near doubling of the 435 plants operating globally today.

Nuclear power is on the cusp of a comeback. The technology may be the best opportunity we have to address climate change and meet the world’s growing energy needs.

Introducing the Advanced Nuclear Industry

The energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats). What has gone less noticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list. Third Way original research has identified a new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs, and investors, along with several established nuclear companies, who are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors in North America. In total, we have found nearly 50 projects in companies and organizations working on small modular reactors based on the current light water reactor technology of today’s reactors, advanced reactors using innovative fuels and alternative coolants like molten salt, high temperature gas, or liquid metal instead of high-pressure water, and even fusion reactors, to generate electricity.

These companies are being built and funded because the innovators and investors see profit in creating an answer to the global energy paradox – there are 1.3 billion people in the world without access to reliable electricity; they will get that electricity, and advanced nuclear can provide it to them while cutting global carbon emissions. Our table and map of the advanced nuclear industry in North America is the most comprehensive listing to date of who is working on these reactor designs. In compiling this list, four important trends became clear:

  1. Coast to Coast: Research is not isolated to one state or even one coast. The companies and organizations leading the design revolution reach up and down both the East and West coasts of the United States and into Canada. In all, twenty different states host entities researching advanced nuclear energy.
  2. One Size Doesn’t Fit All: In interviews Third Way conducted with many of the companies on this list, we found real diversity in size and structure, ranging from lone entrepreneurs, to venture capital supported university spin-offs, to large international corporations. Each is making strides and bringing a unique perspective to the industry.
  3. A Compendium of Coolants: While water does a great job of cooling and moderating the atomic fissions of nuclear reactors, the next generation of nuclear reactors is looking to broaden our options. These include liquid metal, high temperature gases, and molten salt. Nuclear reactors using these coolants can be even safer than most light water reactors. The higher operating temperatures of coolants like helium, liquid metals, and molten salts more readily lend themselves to industrial applications requiring high temperature process heat.1
  4. Not Just Fission Anymore: Along with the evolution from large light water reactors to small modular light water reactors and beyond, Third Way has found major investment and interest in nuclear fusion from both small and large companies. Though this technology has much left to refine before commercialization, the growth has been staggering.

When thinking of the emerging advanced nuclear industry, it is important to understand how it compares to other sectors with a number of potentially new entrants. Let’s take the Internet. On the surface, there are similarities. As with the Internet today, the advanced nuclear space includes startups led by recent Ph.D. graduates, established Fortune 500 multinationals, and everything in between. And just like Internet companies, financing includes seed capital provided by angel investors, investments by established venture capital firms, and companies spending their own capital on significant R&D budgets.

The differences between the advanced nuclear companies and the companies spurring the latest Internet revolution are just as important. While the latest software or hardware improvement can take significant funding and research, the dollars and time required are a relative pittance in comparison to the funding necessary and regulation that must be navigated to design and build a new nuclear reactor. But despite these obstacles, nearly 50 companies and organizations are moving ahead, and a decade from now we may be seeing a brand new reactor revolutionizing the energy industry.

See the balance of this article, relevant data, an interesting infographic alongside references at:

See also:
Op-Ed Nuclear power must be a part of greener future

Reference: Advanced Nuclear Summit & Showcase

A Ninth Planet Once Again?

Ninth Planet May Exist Beyond Pluto, Scientists Report

There might be a ninth planet in the solar system after all, and it is not Pluto.

Two astronomers reported on Wednesday that they had compelling signs of something bigger and farther away — something that would satisfy the current definition of a planet, where Pluto falls short.

“We are pretty sure there’s one out there,” said Michael E. Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology.

What Dr. Brown and a fellow Caltech professor, Konstantin Batygin, have not done is actually find that planet, so it would be premature to start revising mnemonics of the planets.

In a paper published in The Astronomical Journal, Dr. Brown and Dr. Batygin laid out a detailed circumstantial argument for the planet’s existence in what astronomers have observed: a half-dozen small bodies in distant elliptical orbits.

What is striking, the scientists said, is that the orbits of all six loop outward in the same quadrant of the solar system and are tilted at about the same angle. The odds of that happening by chance are about 1 in 14,000, Dr. Batygin said.

Read the entire article as:

See also: