Science Heroes

Everybody has heroes.


John Piña Craven in one of his signature turtle-neck shirts. I’ve seen Craven in more turtle-necks than Carl Sagan, which is impressive.

This post may ramble a bit, but my goal is to look at what it means to call someone your ‘hero’. While this post isn’t meant to be specifically about my heroes, I’d like to begin by mentioning my two main heroes and talking a little about them. They are John Piña Craven and Richard Feynman.

John Piña Craven

I’ll begin with Craven. Most of what I know about John Piña Craven comes from a handful of books. I first read about him in the book, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage. Later on, I read Craven’s own book, The Silent War: The Cold War Battle Beneath the Sea. Both books are very good and highly recommended for anyone interested in learning more about Craven. John Craven began his naval career as an enlisted man during WWII. From there, he was selected for the V-12 Navy College Training Program, and he earned his comission of ensign and completed his Ph.D. in that program (he previously had a Masters of Science degree from Caltech). After the war, Craven continued to work for the Navy, but as a civilian. He was appointed Project Manager for the Navy’s Polaris [ballistic missle] submarine program and ultimately was appointed Chief Scientist for the Navy’s Special Projects Office.


John Piña Craven. The goggles say it all. 😛

Craven was fortunate to be the Chief Scientist for the Navy’s Special Projects Office during one of the most exciting (and dangerous) periods in US Navel history. Some of his more interesting achievements include:

  • Pioneered the Navy’s deep-submergence rescue vehicle (DSRV) program. The “rescue” aspect of Craven’s DSRV program was a cover: The true goal of the program was to photograph and recover Soviet “junk” on the seafloor in Operation Sand Dollar. The “junk” included lost Soviet subs and ships, and ICBM fragments from Soviet test launches. Ultimately, the prize of Operation Sand Dollar was the submarine K-129, but since the K-129 did not sink until 1968, it could not have been part of the original Operation Sand Dollar “wish list” presented to Craven in 1965.
  • Pioneered Bayesian based search methods and successfully applied these methods to locate (a) an H-Bomb missing off the coast of Spain, and (b) the USS Scorpion. Both were located in 1968.
  • Operation Sand Dollar: The use of unmanned DSRVs on the USS Halibut to locate and photograph the Soviet submarine K-129 (also 1968). Later on, in the early 1970’s, it was the CIA’s idea to attempt to raise the K-129. Craven thought the idea was nutty (and he was right). The attempt to raise the K-129 proceeded anyway under Project Azorian, and the Hughes Glomar Explorer was designed and built specifically for the mission.
  • Operation Ivy Bells: How much (if any) direct involvement Craven had in Operation Ivy Bells (early 1970’s) is unclear to me. However, the systems that Craven put in place with the deep submergence projects and the Halibut made Ivy Bells possible. This operation to tap an undersea Soviet telephone cable was easily the most risky and daring clandestine operation of the cold war.

Richard Phillips Feynman


Feynman’s Los Alamos ID. Smirky little punk, ain’t he! [Click to Enlarge]

I know lot more about Richard Feynman than I do about John Craven. But that’s not to say I have any real understanding of Feynman’s actual achievements, which are rather opaque to me. It’s not like Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which you can get a good grasp on with virtually no math skills outside of the Pythagorean theorem (Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is a bit more complex, but not too bad). I understand maybe 10% of the theoretical particle physics that comprise Feynman’s career, and even that number may be optimistic. What I know of Richard Feynman comes largely from his semi-autobiographical books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? and from his many lectures that are available online. I’m sure I’ve watched (or listened to where only audio is available) his many lectures countless times. Feynman was a masterful orator and story-teller, and the anecdotes he told of his life makes you feel like you know him personally.


In his 1974 Caltech commencement address, Richard Feynman coined the phrase “Cargo Cult Science.” Unfortunately, neither audio nor video of that address appears to exist. My link is to a PDF file of the address, and it’s well worth reading.

Feynman described the nature of the scientific process and scientific inquiry like no other. In his 1979 University of Auckland QED Lecture Series (first video at about 23:00),  he talks about the different kinds of ‘not understanding’ and says the following about the refusal to believe (my transcription):

And then there’s a kind of saying that you don’t understand it meaning “I don’t believe it. It’s too crazy. It’s the kind of thing I just … I’m not going to accept it.” This kind, I hope you’ll come along with me and you’ll have to accept it, because it’s the way nature works. If you want to know the way nature works: We looked at it, carefully, look at it … see! That’s the way it looks! You don’t like it? Go somewhere else! To another universe where the rules are simpler; philosophically more pleasing; more psychologically easy! I can’t help it, okay! If I’m going to tell you honestly what the world looks like to human beings who have struggled as hard as they can to understand it, I can only tell you what it looks like and I cannot make it any simpler. I’m not going to do this–I’m not going to simplify it. I’m not going to fake it. I’m not going to tell you it’s something like a ball-bearing on a spring. It isn’t. So I’m going to tell you what it really is like, and if you don’t like it, that’s too bad, okay.

Feynman is the one person from history that I would like to meet above all others. Anyone interested in learning more about him should read his books and listen to a few of his lectures. The audio from one of my favorite Feynman lectures, Los Alamos From Below, is embedded in the player below. In this lecture, Feynman tells many of the anecdotes that he writes about in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!


So … John Piña Craven and Richard Phillips Feynman are my two heroes.

What is it about these two guys that makes them my heroes? The truth is, the achievements of neither were singularly important in their fields. Craven was somewhat lucky in that he he was appointed Chief Scientist for the Navy’s Special Projects Office at the most exciting time in the Navy’s submarine history. Feynman was an extraordinary physicist, but if he never existed, someone else would have done what he did. So why should I pick out these two guys and call them my heroes?

Craven and Feynman are not real heroes: They are not people who have performed heroic acts. Or at least, if they have performed heroic acts, those acts aren’t known to me. A real hero would be someone like a fireman who has pulled a person out of a burning building. Instead, Feynman and Craven are what I would call subjective heroes. They are personal heroes.

They are my heroes because they said things I like to hear. They are my heroes because they’ve been written about in such a way that they sound especially colorful and interesting to me. They are my heroes because of things they have done that are unrelated to their professions. If Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew never wrote Blind Man’s Bluff, I may never have heard of Craven. Or, if Sontag and Drew were bad writers and described Craven in a dull and uninteresting way, I may never have been interested enough to further look into Craven’s career and read his book, The Silent War. If Richard Feynman were not himself such a colorful writer, I may never have gotten through Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and I would have had no incentive to look up Feynman’s other writings or seek out and listen to his lectures.

I don’t think that my saying Craven and Feynman are not real heroes should take anything away from them. Feynman was an extraordinary man, as is John Craven. [I’m trying my best in this post to not accidentally refer to Craven in the past tense. He is retired in Hawaii now and celebrated his 90th birthday this year.]

The reason for this post, and what has me thinking about what defines a personal (subjective) hero, is my recent post on Nikola Tesla. I bashed Tesla quite a bit in that post, but there is something about Tesla adherents that irritates the shit out of me. You see, it’s fine to choose Tesla as your personal hero, and if you consider that the actual achievements of these historic figures don’t necessarily have a bearing on whether or not they are considered heroes, it would be silly of me to say my hero is better than your hero. But don’t, in the process of declaring Nikola Tesla your hero, turn him into something he wasn’t. Don’t pretend Tesla discovered electricity or AC, because he didn’t. Don’t think he discovered X-rays or super weapons or infinite energy devices that were secreted away by evil government powers, because he didn’t. Don’t lie to yourself. Don’t think Tesla was in any way a pivotal person in history, because he wasn’t. Neither was Thomas Edison, or Albert Einstein, or John Craven or Richard Feynman. These guys were/are all extremely intelligent and contributed a lot, but they were also very lucky to have been in their particular professions at just the right times. If none of them existed, the world today would not be substantially different, because everything they accomplished would have been accomplished by others. The real reasons any of these individuals are regarded as heroes tend to have very little to do with their actual achievements anyway. Albert Einstein, for example, was a very likable man, and people enjoy the idea of a “lowly” patent clerk making some of history’s greatest discoveries. It is something that people can relate to. If Albert Einstein was an ass, and if instead of being a patent clerk he inherited great wealth and never had to struggle for anything, he would still be famous, but he would be nobody’s hero. The same is true of Nikola Tesla. The fact is, Tesla’s actual accomplishments were relatively few and he was a bit of a flake. He has been adopted as a hero by his fans because they relate to him as the “little guy” who had to struggle for his place in history amid evil forces who were bent on keeping him down. But that story is, basically, bullshit.

John Piña Craven and Richard Feynman are my personal heroes, but I’m honest with myself as to why they are my heroes and what their true accomplishments were. That honesty, I think, is something that is missing in the Nikola Tesla fandom.

This entry was posted in Science and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Science Heroes

  1. Pingback: John Piña Craven, American Treasure |

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s