Friday, February 25, 2011

Project Tuva

"...because any place that's got a capitol named K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting."

~ Richard P Feynman

As a young boy, Feynman located a country named Tuva on a globe. Middle of Nowhere just outside of downtown Mongolia. Interesting stamps for the young philatelist. He immediately wanted to know more about it. (Being a young Richard P Feynman must have been a daily adventure. Must have been.)

Later on in the same life, at a cocktail party, Feynman quizzed a friend of his who claimed to know about geography, as to the existence of a country named Tannu Tuva. (Feynman knew the friend would think he'd made it up, which the friend immediately did, and so they looked it up.) Sure enough, an encyclopedia listing. The capitol of Tannu Tuva was named Kyzyl, and Feynman decided that one day he'd travel there.

"Travels in Central Siberia" was a book Feynman found at the library in San Francisco (he was in town to play bongos for a ballet) but the only thing he discovered from that book was that nobody, and I mean nobody, travels to Tannu Tuva. It was in central Siberia, and was located in a "bowl" which according to Feynman meant "that if you wanted to go down into it, you had to climb out of it, and there really was no particular reason to go through it so..."

Nobody knew anything about Tannu Tuva, which was of course irresistible to Richard P. Feynman.

He got sidetracked often on his way to Kyzyl, Manhattan Project, Nobel, teaching at both Cornell and Cal Tech, solving things like O-Ring induced Shuttle explosions, painting, drawing, a little poetry and what-not, but he and close friend Ralph Leighton never let that Tuva dream die.

It became an obsession for both of them. It was getting late in Feynman's life, he was battling stomach cancer, and so Leighton, son of a physics prof, former Feynman grad student and later asst prof/TA/beer buddy/weed buddy (pure speculation on my part but I know RPF smoked weed and I know he had to get it somewhere) bongo buddy, much of the bureaucratic heavy lifting. Letters to what was then the Soviet Union repeatedly informed Leighton that entry permits for their "research team" could not be granted this year, perhaps next.

Then, Feynman and Leighton came across a 1931 book, published in Berlin, written by a German historian and explorer named Otto Mänchen-Helfen that described Mänchen-Helfen's travels in the remote country of Tannu Tuva. Otto said that he was the first non-Russian to ever visit the Republic of Tuva, that he had low expectations going in, but found the experience "astonishing." They learned from Otto that the only time they turned on the power plant in Kyzyl was when the movie theater was running.

"I saw the beautiful Pudovkin film Mother there," wrote Mänchen-Helfen. "...the film broke at least twenty times that night, but that only made the audience happy. So much the better. Now the fairy-tale would last that much longer."

The Tuvans were unable to understand the Russian sub-titles, but according to Otto, they couldn't have cared less. The only time they got pissed off was when Pudovkin showed a close-up of thundering horse-hooves. They couldn't understand the reason for only showing part of the horse.

The horses they liked. Horses they understood. They rode from all over Tuva on horseback to get to Kyzyl on movie night to see a blockbuster movie that they didn't understand spoken in a foreign language. They wanted to see the whole horse, not just a hoof.

Completely removed from "modern" 1920s society except for the movie theater. Like stumbling across one of those Amazon tribes who don't wear clothes but talk on cell phones.

Leighton told of the red-tape hairball that he and Richard ("The Chief") had encountered attempting to travel to Tuva, and how letter after letter were answered with polite declines. No can do. Thanks for asking, but Intourism doesn't route through Kyzyl.

Finally, Leighton hit paydirt. He found a Mongolian-Tuvan-Russian phrase-book, and used a Russian-English translation book to complete the deal. He could now decipher Tuvan, and more importantly, write a letter in that language.

It became a puzzle. Take a Tuvan phrase, translate it to Russian, to English, do the turn-around and try to figure out a way to write a letter to the Tuvan honchos, in their own language, and bypass the Soviet travel/kgb agents. Right in Feynman's power alley. He loved that kinda shit. (Google Feynman/Dresden Codex for further examples of his love of puzzles.)

They wrote their letter to Tuva, in Tuvan, mailed it, and waited. Weeks passed. Months. Just when they'd about given up the ghost they got a reply from a Tuvan guy who told them that he was delighted to know that someone like Feynman was interested in his culture, and warned them that travel to Tuva was extremely limited, very few people allowed in, good luck, nice to meet ya. And of course it was written in Tuvan so they had to crack that code, just to understand the bad news.

They discovered Mongolian throat singers, and hatched a scheme where they'd travel to the World Mongolian Throat Singing Extravagnza in a town not far from Tuva (2 time zones or so) and they'd finagle their way to Kyzyl by making up some shit about studying Mongolian Throat Singing. That busted out when the Mongolian Throat Singing Extravaganza got canceled.

At one point in their journey, Leighton traveled to Sweden to see a museum exhibit that covered the history of The Silk Road. There he encountered a Russian museum curator named Kapitsov who was traveling with the exhibit, and, essentially impersonated an American museum curator. Leighton told the Rooskie that he might be able to swing a trip to the US for the entire Silk Road production. (I guess you can do that sort of thing if you have Richard Feynman running interference for you.)

In order to schedule such a thing Leighton would need to speak to several local museums, and would the Russian be interested in a sort of cultural exchange? You know, we bring 17 of you people to America with your exhibit, you'll see Disneyland you'll have a great time. When asked what his "finder's fee" would be Leighton said there'd be no fee, but maybe you can give us a little reach-around and find a way for us to see Kyzyl, Tuva.

Well? Am I exaggerating when I say these guys were obsessed?

And so the Russians came to America. And they showed their Silk Road exhibit. And they saw Disneyland. Feynman and Leightont took the Russian delegation to a gathering area for a bunch of Hippies. People walking along the beach with parrots, and roller-skating by topless, the usual California stuff. The Russians had a great time, and Kaiptsov assured Richard and Ralph that they would see Kyzyl, Tuva.

"I'm gonna guarantee it." said Feynman, quoting the Russian to an interviewer. He was excited about the new possibility of reaching the end of a lifetime quest.

Three days after that, he went into the hospital and on Feb 15, 1988 Richard Feynman died at the age of 69.

Two days after he died, a letter arrived.


Dear Professor Feynman,

I have the great pleasure to invite you, your wife, and four of your colleagues to visit the Soviet Union. I was informed by Professor Kapitsov that you would like to visit Tuva and get acquainted of its sightseeings. We consider the most favorable time for such a trip to be period of May and June, 1988. Your trip will take three to four weeks. Kindly note that the Academy of Sciences will cover your expenses.

Yours sincerely,

Vice President Velikov

Most of that is from the books I've read about Feynman, and from Ralph Leighton himself in interviews. The Tuva story was the theme of the PBS show, and at the end the interviewer asked Ralph "What's going to happen now, the Tuva Project?"

Leighton said that he wasn't sure what he would do, that he was considering finances and logistics...things that had never really been a consideration before Feynman died. Those sudden considerations caused Ralph to conclude that "It was the adventure with my friend that this was all about."

Not long ago, I was surfing around and came across something about a guy named Curtis Wong, who works at Microsoft's Next Media Research Group. Wong had already done projects that were aimed at interactive learning via the web. Encarta Online, a CD -ROM tour of the Barnes Foundation's collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings outside Philly, and another virtual tour of one of da Vinci's notebooks.

The project Bill Gates had in mind for Wong this time involved the production of a new kind of teaching tool. Interactive. Watch a video, pop-ups along the way with tidbits of info, click on the pop-up, take notes on the side, the video stops and you can read the most current wiki entry on the subject or whatever, subtitles of the audio,...pretty cool idea.

The subject would be Richard Feynman's 1964 lectures at Cornell, the rights to which Gates had recently purchased from the BBC. Turns out Gates is a Feynman fan too. He says that Feynman is the guy who took the subject of physics and made in both interesting and fun. Bill calls the Messenger Lectures the best he's ever seen at explaining the complexities, as well as the simple beauty of physics, and that nobody is better at that than Richard Feynman.

It became a 20 year project for Gates. The pieces had to all come together. First the internet needed to happen, then he had to get the rights, and then he needed the suitable platform to share this treasure.
7 hours of lectures on Physical Laws, the Relation of Math and Physics, The Distinction of Past and Future,...the goods, delivered by the best

Unavailable on the web until 2009, and after much production effort, Bill Gates and Curtis Wong came up with, Project Tuva.


Penal-Colony said...

Just read the whole thing over in La-La-Land.

A damn fine post, Michael.

Again, Bravo!

[How's the Bro? Mom? Myself & Da exercised our franchise today.]

Michael said...

Thanks John. Slow improvement with bro, about the same with mom. Spoke to Bill for about an hour yesterday. Long road ahead.

Please tell me you & himself voted the same way. Otherwise, ya know...offsetting and all that.

Penal-Colony said...

Hell, no!

His brother was a Fine Gael TD [ie. senator] for 16 years, so he went the Enda-ticket all the way. I'm more of a Labour-Greens man, but since the Greens sold their goolies to the fucks in Fianna Fail, I split the differ betwixt Enda & Eamonn [FG & Lab]. The Da is so fucking right wing it would make you-know-who llok like an altar boy. When he's well he talks about shooting guys like Berie up the hole.

Good to hear things are better with Bill. Second chances are to be cherished, huh?

Michael said...

Oh great, so you were arguing politics on your way to vote? Reminds me of myself and my mom. I'd tell her she can just stay home and I'll promise to stay home and we won't offset and we'll save gas.

No way, it's our duty to vote!

Bill knows how close he came. Time to change the old lifestyle.

rundeep said...

Ok. My husband was so enamored of Feyman and this story that about 18 years ago he took his sons to the see the Tuvan throat singers when they came to town. Let's just say that it was apparently a long night.

It is a fabulous story, though, no?

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