Interviewer: Now comes the part of the interview where we ask a question to test your creative thinking ability. Don’t think too hard about it, just apply everyday common sense, and describe your reasoning process.
Here’s the question: Why are manhole covers round?
Feynman: They’re not. Some manhole covers are square. It’s true that there are SOME round ones, but I’ve seen square ones, and rectangular ones.
Interviewer: But just considering the round ones, why are they round?
Feynman: If we are just considering the round ones, then they are round by definition. That statement is a tautology.
Interviewer: I mean, why are there round ones at all? Is there some particular value to having round ones?
Feynman: Yes. Round covers are used when the hole they are covering up is also round. It’s simplest to cover a round hole with a round cover.
Interviewer: Can you think of a property of round covers that gives them an advantage over square ones?
Feynman: We have to look at what is under the cover to answer that question. The hole below the cover is round because a cylinder is the strongest shape against the compression of the earth around it. Also, the term “manhole” implies a passage big enough for a man, and a human being climbing down a ladder is roughly circular in cross-section. So a cylindrical pipe is the natural shape for manholes. The covers are simply the shape needed to cover up a cylinder.
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