The problem of Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

[Updated again — see note at end of post] Very few heroes can survive scrutiny unscathed. They all have flaws, by virtue of being human. However, hero-worship blurs those flaws,  leveling them: truly nasty aspects of a person’s personality or behavior become on par with little quirks and eccentricities. In that way, we justify our worship. If everyone is a little flawed, then it doesn’t matter if our heroes are too. Right? They’re only human!

But what if a hero was a sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior? What if this person also happens to be a Nobel laureate, a founder of a whole field of research, and an admirable thinker on a number of complicated topics? How do we deal with the two realities together?

In short, how do we cope with the problem of Richard Feynman?

Richard Feynman the physicist

Richard Feynman casts the longest shadow in the collective psyche of modern physicists. He plays the nearly same role within the community that Einstein does in the world beyond science: the Physicist’s Physicist, someone almost as important as a symbol as he was as a researcher. Many of our professors in school told Feynman stories, and many of us acquired copies of his lecture notes in physics.

As with Einstein, there’s a good reason for his fame. Feynman was a pioneer of quantum field theory, one of a small group of researchers who worked out quantum electrodynamics (QED): the theory governing the behavior of light, matter, and their interactions. QED shows up everywhere from the spectrum of atoms to the collisions of electrons inside particle accelerators, but Feynman’s calculation techniques proved useful well beyond the particular theory.

Not only that, his explanations of quantum physics were deep and cogent, in a field where clarity can be hard to come by. For that reason, he gained a reputation he only partly deserved: that of being a good teacher, which I think anyone who took his introductory physics class might dispute. (I describe his notes for that class as being “introductory physics for graduate students”, since, while very good, they start at such a high level that no beginner could get much from them.) However, if you had a certain baseline of knowledge, Feynman’s explanations can take you deeper into very complex physics and leave you with a great understanding. That’s no mean feat.

Dick Feynman the human

A panel from a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic about summoning the shade of Feynman, and its creepy consequences. Click to read the whole thing. [Credit: Zach Weinersmith]

A panel from a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic about summoning the shade of Feynman, and its creepy consequences. Click to read the whole thing. [Credit: Zach Weinersmith]

Feynman stories that get passed around physics departments aren’t usually about science, though. They’re about his safecracking, his antics, his refusal to wear neckties, his bongos, his rejection of authority, his sexual predation on vulnerable women. Admittedly, that last one isn’t usually spelled out so blatantly. It’s usually framed as “oh, times were different” or “that was just Feynman being himself” or (if the person was at least trying to not to let the behavior slide) “he was a flawed human being”. Some simply ignore that side of him entirely. Some will pull out the admirable example of his encouragement of Joan Feynman, his sister, as proof that he couldn’t truly harbor horrible attitudes about women.

The problem is that the facts are against any excuses. Feynman pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him. He targeted the wives of male grad students. He went to bars and practiced a technique that isn’t so different from the reprehensible “game” of the pick-up artists (PUAs).[1] This is all public record, including anecdotes in his own words from his sorta-memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?[2]

At Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker quoted from an infamous passage where Feynman describes the evolution of his thinking on disrespecting women.  (For an even longer quote, see this one at the Restructure! blog.) Not only did he think this way, he also considered it important enough to describe in detail for his memoirs several decades after the events in question, and not to repudiate it either. As Koerth-Baker says,

To Feynman’s credit, he seems to decide this isn’t something he wants to keep doing. But he never seems to get what was really wrong with the idea and it’s frustrating that he seems to get close to the realization that you can (le gasp!) just treat women like humans, only to swish past it and end up in a pit of vile crap.

He evidently considered it an important part of his life’s story.

And let’s face it: Feynman frequently unkind toward men too. In his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room, and to make even his friends look like losers by comparison. Excessive self-deprecation is one thing, but it seems a trifle unfair to take potshots at friends in a medium where they can’t defend themselves.

No more heroes

In my best behavior, I am really just like him
Look underneath my floorboards for the secrets I have hid.

So wrote Sufjan Stevens in his powerful and creepy song “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” While I think Stevens is going for a quasi-Calvinist perspective on human nature — we’re all so fundamentally screwed up that the difference between an ordinary singer and a serial killer is small — the point that we all harbor secrets is a valid one. Feynman’s life — both the bad and good — are more public knowledge than hopefully most of ours will ever be.

Yet we are faced with the fact that secrets are not all created equal, and our foibles are not equivalent. Einstein was a brilliant physicist, wore women’s shoes on holiday, was passionately anti-racist, disdained socks, and often treated his family — especially his first wife — badly. These are all facts that are part of the entire picture of the man, but it’s obvious that they aren’t of equal value in judging him. To place his horrible treatment of Mileva Marić and his aloof relationship with his sons on par with his disinterest in brushing his hair, as though they’re just quirks of the man, shows lack of understanding and frankly of empathy. It may be a common human habit for us to side with the powerful against the weak, the famous against the non-famous, but it’s a bad habit.

Feynman doesn’t need us to defend him, anymore than Einstein does. Their legacies in science are secure, so it doesn’t behoove us to defend their often less-than-stellar personal lives, especially when they did damage to people less powerful than themselves. It certainly does nobody any favors to say, as Ash Jogalekar did in a blog post for Scientific American, that Feynman was no worse than anyone else in his era. The post was removed by the editors (and I’ll leave it to others to debate whether that’s a good tactic or not; I have mixed feelings myself), but several people archived the text before it vanished. [The post is now back. See the Update below.] While much of the post is valid — Jogalekar doesn’t deny a lot of Feynman’s bad behavior — he ends up falling into the same pit of excuse-making. Worse, he implies that Feynman’s “game” is probably universal and necessary for men to play:

…Feynman’s ploys to pick up girls in bars were – and in fact are – probably practiced by every American male seeking companionship in bars, whether consciously or unconsciously; what made Feynman different was the fact that he actually documented his methods, and he was probably the only scientist to do so. In fact we can be thankful that society has now  progressed to a stage where both genders can practice these mate-seeking strategies on almost equal terms, although the gap indicated by that “almost” deserves contemplation as an indication of the unequal bargaining power that women still have. The point though is that, whatever his actions may appear like to a modern crowd, I do not think Richard Feynman was any more sexist than a typical male product of his times and culture.

[Update: The original post is gone, but you can read it on the author's personal blog.] Yes, society was more sexist than it currently is, but we’re hardly beyond defending predators in our culture.[3] Whether Feynman’s attitudes were typical (I suspect men, then as now, fall on a spectrum in these matters), his actions surely were not. Not every man, even those widowed young as Feynman was, seeks out younger and more vulnerable women as part of their grieving process. Not every man going to a bar psychs himself up by thinking of every woman as “worse than a whore” if she won’t sleep with him. Too many men, then and now, indulge in those kinds of thinking and behavior, but even if most are that way, it still doesn’t make the attitudes defensible.

Like many others, I’ve been watching and loving the BBC series “Sherlock”, a modern re-imagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories. However, my enjoyment is clouded on several points, not least of which is the central relationship — Holmes as the abuser and Watson as willingly abused. That was spelled out explicitly in the last episode of the third season: Watson, it is said, needs to be hurt and betrayed and treated disdainfully. Whether deliberately planned or not, that seems to be the way the show keeps us on Sherlock’s side: if Watson, Molly, and several others are actually OK with being treated badly, then the sociopathic behavior his friend exhibits can’t really be all that bad.

But “Sherlock” is fiction; Feynman was a real person, and those he hurt were no less real people than he was. Sure, it’s easy to abstract them: we don’t know the names of the women he met at bars, the wives of graduate students he emotionally blackmailed into “relationships”, the “airhead” female undergraduates in his classes, or the waitresses he pranked just so he could get a self-satisfied story out of it later. We can justify uncomfortably to ourselves that they’re “just some women”, but Feynman is Feynman: he’s important symbolically for physics.

Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was. Personally, I won’t stop writing about his contributions to physics, nor will I apologize for doing so, but please don’t take that as tacit acceptance of his behavior. People can become greater than they are by contributing great things to the world, but it’s important to remember that the human being behind those accomplishments isn’t a god in human form. Don’t worship — understand. Don’t erase the bad acts — remember them in hopes of overcoming them in the future. Only by understanding our scientific giants as full human beings can we do them justice, and hopefully create a more just scientific culture in the future.

Notes

  1. For further details, you should read James Gleick’s excellent biography of Feynman, titled Genius.
  2. I say “sorta” because he generally couldn’t be bothered to write anything down. Other than research papers, most of his published work is transcribed from audio recordings of lectures, talks, or conversations.
  3. Added in revision: I want this article to be about Feynman rather than Jogalekar, but the line about ‘unequal bargaining’ is definitely problematic. Yes, men do most of the asking even now, but the worst that happens to them is usually a refusal. Women have to worry whether they are physically in danger for refusing a man’s advances. You have to be pretty deluded to think that women are advantaged in the world of dating.

Updates (July 16, 2014)

  1. As of yesterday, Scientific American restored Ash Jogalekar’s post on Feynman, with an explanation. I encourage you to go read it. Though obviously I disagree with quite a bit of the content, I think it was a mistake to remove the post in the first place, and I’m glad they restored it.
  2. Mathematigal wrote an excellent post about why she can’t think of Feynman as a hero, which in an idea world should give Feynman’s thoughtless defenders some pause. Additionally, see this comment on the post, which explains why we should talk about the bad side of the man along with the good. On a similar note, Janet Stemwedel put a lot of this discussion in context for general science communication.
  3. Since almost all the comments on this post are variations on a few themes (“Feynman was a womanizer, but he didn’t actually do anything wrong so shut up!”, “You suck and shouldn’t dare to write about a great man like Feynman”, etc.), I don’t see a valid discussion of the ideas in this post. So, I have closed comments. I dislike doing that sort of thing, but I don’t have time to play goalkeeper and do my other work today.
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50 Responses to “The problem of Richard Feynman”


  1. 1 Boris Borcic July 13, 2014 at 11:25

    “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was. Personally, I won’t stop writing about his contributions to physics, nor will I apologize for doing so, but please don’t take that as tacit acceptance of his behavior.”

    I’d have added a promise to return the favor.

  2. 2 EugenR July 13, 2014 at 11:44

    It is hard for dwarfs to reach the hights of a giant. Without Fieyman you would have to write your opinion with pen and noone would be interested.

  3. 3 Shecky R July 13, 2014 at 12:06

    Peoples’ lives have to be looked at in their ENTIRETY, not judged by taking certain compartments, no matter how bad, out of context and placed under a magnifying glass. Yes, we ALL have disreputable parts, including those who spend more dollars on makeup, shoes, jewelry, hairdos, etc. than they ever spend on battered women, homeless shelters, starving children etc. or other worthy causes. I’d place Feynman’s overall values (not to mention his brilliance, accomplishments, and contributions to society) against any of his current critics and argue those critics fade by comparison.

    Why this issue is even coming up now is bizarre… Feynman’s life was an open book (moreso than any of these critics)… he didn’t hide his flaws…. they’ve been known/ written about for decades. The current criticism says more about the blazing ignorance of so many, who apparently only learned of Feynman through a couple of YouTube videos, and now find this as a revelation, than it does about Feynman.
    When you are all willing to place a similar ruler up against Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg, Bohr and Sagan, and and of course JFK, FDR, and misogynist Martin Luther King, and a 1000 others including, your daddies, grandaddies, uncles, brothers, sons, than maybe I can take the prideful rhetoric seriously.

    And worse yet, Feynman isn’t even around to defend himself… soooo easy to pick over the dead. No one has to like or admire Feynman, but, implying now, from vaunted self-centered pedestals, that you are all so much better than him as a human being, would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

  4. 5 truthsleuth5 July 13, 2014 at 13:05

    Good comment Shecky R. To label Feynman as a sexual predator is irresponsible. There is a big difference between “skirt chasing,” a common and natural male past-time and based on natural drives, and predatory activity which for most people conjures up ideas of rape or pedaphelia.

    There is no “problem of Richard Feynman.” He was human, and a damn fine one at that. This sounds like the smears from his second wife who felt scorned because she simply couldn’t compete against mathematics in the bedroom. He rightfully divorced her and moved on to find happiness.

  5. 6 Mike July 13, 2014 at 13:22

    This article is full of opinions in generalisations. I’ve read it with curiosity, but it did not deliver – what is it exactly that Feynman did wrong?

  6. 7 Mike M July 13, 2014 at 14:13

    Also agree with Shecky R comment. Pick an icon, find a flaw, exploit it, profit.
    Also liked “both genders can practice these mate-seeking strategies on almost equal terms”. Specially, the fact that both genders practice those or similar tactics (shockings, men likes women, and women likes men) ; If that’s wrong, no wonder online date services grew in these past years. Yes, the “almost” is something that needs to work on, but it certainly has improved since those years.

    No, I don’t ignore his flaws, I learned from them.
    The flawless human hero is one who is an expert hiding its flaws.
    I keep Feynman as a hero, I liked many of his personal stories, but also recognized and acknowledge his wrongs.

    It seems that these are times where people are eager to show off their “morale” by pointing out any defect on others. As a friend said about Feynman “they forgot to point out that he wasn’t a vegan”.

    Thanks,

  7. 8 teleogram July 13, 2014 at 14:37

    I hear Hawking’s kindof an asshole, too.

    The real problem is that works of transcendent genius live on long after the individual responsible for them is dead, while everyday acts of cruelty do not. That these particular sexist behaviors are being remembered and remarked upon at all is only due to the exceptional nature of the man who perpetrated them. Most victims of sexism from the time period will get far less recognition, far less remembrance.

    So put an asterisk next to Feynman, by all means. But that asterisk is riding the coattails of his genius, providing more recognition to the women Feynman treated badly than most women who are treated badly will ever get, in that or any other time.

  8. 9 Josh Witten July 13, 2014 at 15:27

    Matthew, congratulations of a very balanced, well-considered post on this issue. Truly mythological heroes are easier because their is no real person to compare to the ideal. Ironically, we usually create flaws for those characters.

    Feynman is a particular issue, because, like Einstein, there is a real industry built up around him. While one of the sadly predictable commentors here makes the dubious suggestion that tearing down icons is an attention/money-making enterprise, promoting them certainly is.

  9. 10 Evan Crane July 13, 2014 at 15:43

    There’s a typo in the Dick Feynman Section: “departments aren’t about usually about science, though.”

  10. 12 mike July 13, 2014 at 16:02

    I would like to ad a comparison. Germany is a great country, many would like to be like them. Economy, technology, education, etc. Yet, they have this obscure past. But no one (almost) denies it, they learned from it or tries to. Despite their past, many look up to them.
    Thanks

  11. 14 denniswingo July 13, 2014 at 19:06

    It is interesting to note the similarities in the defense of Feynman’s antics and those who rallied behind an impeached ex president from the 1990’s for similar behavior.

  12. 15 Janet D. Stemwedel July 13, 2014 at 19:13

    Ping!

  13. 18 Simplicio July 13, 2014 at 19:14

    @Mike “I’ve read it with curiosity, but it did not deliver – what is it exactly that Feynman did wrong?”

    Yea, I wouldn’t have minded some more specifics either. Feynman was certainly a skirt chaser, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of a story of his having put undue pressure on anyone to sleep with him, which is what I think is the minimum standard to be a “predator”.

    Indeed, there something vaguely misogynistic about labelling a guy picking up girls in a bar a “predator”. It robs the woman who agree to sleep with him of agency: they aren’t just people trying to fulfil their own sexual needs, they’re damsels in distress being tricked of their virtue by the devious devices of more compentent men.

    (I tend to agree Feynman comes off as kind of an ass in some of his stories, but I don’t really see anything that would justify calling him a predator).

  14. 19 David Jones (@metaburbia) July 13, 2014 at 19:15

    ‘n his memoirs, he tends to spin things to make himself into the smartest one in the room’

    How would that be spinning anything, given that he usually would have been the smartest person in the room?

  15. 20 David Jones (@metaburbia) July 13, 2014 at 19:21

    Incidentally, what did he actually do that was so wrong? I’ve skimmed this post and the blogpost you link to and i’m not entirely sure what the problem was. It can’t just be that he deliberately set out to have sex. Could you be more specific, maybe?

  16. 21 Phong July 13, 2014 at 20:04

    An interesting entry. It is disheartening to encounter these comments from his fanboys. It goes to show: you’re no better than those “dumb jock” types after all. No matter– we continue to rise, and you continue to fall, your hateful attitudes notwithstanding.

  17. 22 Donal July 13, 2014 at 20:27

    I discussed Feynman’s sexual history a few months ago.

    http://donalfagan.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/the-neg/

    It was my impression that he was a good husband to his first wife, and eventually got past this alley cat behavior.

  18. 23 Blake July 13, 2014 at 20:45

    “Indeed, there something vaguely misogynistic about labelling a guy picking up girls in a bar a “predator”. It robs the woman who agree to sleep with him of agency: they aren’t just people trying to fulfil their own sexual needs, they’re damsels in distress being tricked of their virtue by the devious devices of more compentent men. ”

    He did lie to some women about being a student too, that’s dishonest, but I don’t think you could call it being a “predator”.

    He was an asshole, sure. Let’s all acknowledge that-dude had serious issues with his attitude towards women and respecting them-but a sexual predator? Nah. He was a misogynist liar.

    • 24 Nestor July 16, 2014 at 03:30

      He was as close to being an asshole as you are close to win a Nobel prize. That is, light-years away.

  19. 25 Ignacio July 13, 2014 at 21:00

    Only a closeted science geek would think picking up women in a BAR is socially unacceptable predator behavior — truly. What the hell are you thinking? Explain to me what are bars for?

    This kind of nonsense makes me wonder what it is about science that attracts such closeted behaviors. Please enlighten me.

  20. 26 Ignacio July 13, 2014 at 21:05

    Bars are there for men and women to pick each other up. Notice the gender invariant construction you science nerd! You really piss me off.

  21. 27 Ignacio July 13, 2014 at 21:34

    My god he was a grad and pretended to be an undergrad? Lock him up! You should be asking yourself, why did he do it? And, did you miss out on something here?

  22. 28 alQpr July 14, 2014 at 01:53

    What a pile of crap! Feynman was certainly “guilty” of occasional meanness, and of self-mythologizing to an almost absurdly grand (and completely unnecessary) extent, and also apparently of making sexist jokes in lectures (which, unlike some of those linked to from this article, I *do* consider a major issue!), but “pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him”? Oh come on! Let me see now – “Hi, I’m an incredibly handsome professor and future Nobel Prize winner, wanna fuck?” vs “Hi, I’m a kinda cute but dim and immature version of you, wanna fuck?” And, oh horror of horrors!, he went to bars and asked sex workers whether they were in the business of selling reality or fantasy before doing business (but soon discovered that that kind of sex was not what he wanted). I don’t approve of the way he felt he had to denigrate the sex workers in his own mind before posing that question, but do you have any idea how badly you have missed the real point (about how sexist the world was half a century ago – and about how some of the worst aspects of that attitude do still persist (esp. in the IT world) today)?

  23. 29 Ed July 14, 2014 at 02:17

    What a terrible article. Makes it sound like he should be in jail for trying to meet women in a bar. Was he ever charged or convicted of rape? Shameful innuendo for a writer to try to gain credibility with himself.

  24. 30 Roger July 14, 2014 at 02:53

    Surely you’re joking!

    You do not respect the women in this story. Maybe they were getting what they wanted.

  25. 31 Matthew R. Francis July 14, 2014 at 05:48

    I don’t intend to respond to each comment separately, especially since many of you seem to enjoy arguing with points I never made in my post. E.g., I never accused Feynman of rape or any crime. If your primary standard for bad behavior is whether or not you’ll end up in prison, that’s a very high bar.

    Speaking of “bars” of a different sort: if the lesson you’re taking away is that I want people to stop going to bars to meet other people, my main response can only be to laugh at you. (And if you use the term “skirt-chasing” in 2014….) Similarly, the accusations that I’m somehow anti-sex are hilarious, but for the record: I am in favor of people having sex, in a multitude of varieties, between all genders and sexual preferences, so long as those acts are performed between consenting adults.

    For those who want a specific reference for many of the incidents I’m talking about, please refer to James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, especially pages 287-91 and 341-5. Please read the whole book, along with Feynman’s own memoirs.

    Finally — and I really hope this is obvious from what I wrote above, but I’ll spell it out again — I am not saying that Feynman never did any good in his life. I’m not saying that he didn’t have any positive relationships, either. The story of his first marriage is heartbreaking and his letter to his wife after she died doubly so. People aren’t all one thing, and that (if anything) is my primary point.

    • 32 Shecky R July 14, 2014 at 06:18

      “People aren’t all one thing, and that (if anything) is my primary point.”

      That is all any of us (defenders) are saying. People are not seamless wholes, where if one part is bad it contaminates the whole being. Each of us is a bag of disparate components, some good some bad. Eliot Spitzer was a fine administrator and executive; that he had a seamy side of life, was incredibly disappointing, but it didn’t change one ounce of the good he did in public office (and other examples abound). Would I want a young person to emulate Feynman or Spitzer… YES I would! just not in every single aspect.
      I give you credit for being more balanced than some Matthew, but your take-away message/tone remains a judgmental one, decades late, against a man who can’t respond. And for some young people this controversy may be the last thing they remember of Richard Feynman, and that would be ashame.
      As Oscar Wilde said, “We are ALL in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

  26. 33 Stefano July 14, 2014 at 06:35

    Great article: not selling many copies of your book, merchandise, and public speeches lately? After reading “sexual predator, someone who admitted to some really creepy behavior”, I expected to find out that he slept with underage girls, blackmailed others to get sexual favors, etc etc, and instead I found out what I already knew from “Surely your are joking Mr.F.” and “Genius”: that Feynman was a very effective womanizer. On the same line of articles based on unsubstantiated accusation that generate more traffic, you might try with titles like “Rutherford was a pedophile” and “Yukawa the kleptomaniac”.

  27. 34 robert king July 14, 2014 at 07:32

    A comparison of men and women dating in bars has actually been conducted. Norah Vincent documents her doing this in “Self Made Man”–which is being made into a movie as we speak. Long story short–both sexes think that the other sex has it easy. But–read the book

  28. 35 Stefano July 14, 2014 at 10:32

    Just in case this article contains libel against Feynman, I signaled it to whom might be interested in setting the record straight.

  29. 36 Eva Amsen July 14, 2014 at 11:55

    I’m kind of struggling at the moment with WHEN to mention Feynman’s behaviour. I’ve been working (slowly, quietly) on a (writing) project about people who do both music and science, and Feyman’s bongo-playing is well-known enough that I have to address it (and it’s even an intro story in one draft) but in that context I haven’t yet had to mention his behaviour with women. The only place I can see it be relevant at the moment is in contrast with my favourite scientist-musician, Borodin, who was a women’s rights activist. But that doesn’t come up often either. In neither negative nor positive context is these “musiscis'” attitude to women at the forefront of what I want to say. Are footnotes enough? – that’s kind of what I’m trying to work out.

    • 37 Matthew R. Francis July 14, 2014 at 11:59

      My gut feeling is to mention it in proportion to its importance in the story. A footnote might be enough, since you’re focusing mainly on another aspect of each of these scientists’ lives. But I dunno: it’s not like there are rules for this sort of thing!

  30. 38 paul hughes July 14, 2014 at 12:21

    [ I have failed to abide by the commenting rules ]

  31. 39 Typhoon July 14, 2014 at 19:35

    No field of science appears to be immune to the whiny nonsense that is post-modern political correctness.

    Feynman was a womanizer.

    So were Einstein, Landau, and Schrödinger to name a few others.

    Schrödinger had two wives in an open relationship.

    So what?

    All were men with normal male drives, including competitive and sexual, who also possessed scientific genius.

    Expecting one’s heroes to have also been saints is something that one grows out of as one grows up. Apparently some people never do.

  32. 40 Matthew R. Francis July 14, 2014 at 19:36

    OK, I’ve officially had enough of schoolyard-level insults. Please read my commenting policy and learn how to discuss things like mature adults, or I will ban you permanently.

    http://galileospendulum.org/commenting-policy/

  33. 41 Ignacio July 14, 2014 at 20:31

    [ I have failed to abide by the commenting rules ]

  34. 42 Ignacio July 14, 2014 at 20:37

    [ I have failed to abide by the commenting rules ]

  35. 43 Typhoon July 15, 2014 at 09:31

    Who is Matthew R. Francis and why should anyone care about his personal issues with Richard P. Feynman?

  36. 46 Cogs July 15, 2014 at 19:19

    Hmm, if I remember correctly, his “pretending” to be an undergrad when chatting up the ladies was because when he first tried telling them the truth (i.e. that he was a professor), they thought he was lying. So when they assumed that he was a mature-age undergrad, he didn’t correct them.

  37. 47 Pat Finn July 15, 2014 at 22:52

    Why should we care about a scientist’s personal life at all? His contributions to physics, I’m told, are revolutionary; his attitudes toward women were boorish and juvenile. Good thing he is remembered for the former not the latter.

    Seriously, this is a non-issue. When you discuss someone’s achievements the focus needs to be on the achievements, not the person. You can have the latter discussion too but it’s a separate discussion.

    Peace & love to y’all

  38. 49 Nestor July 16, 2014 at 03:25

    Isn’t this very paternalistic towards the women involved? Doesn’t it kind of assume they were not adult enough to decide what to do with their lives and personal relations? Do you have first-hand information about how they felt in a flirt with a man that we know was incredibly fun and charming?

    On top of all this, I dislike extremely this sort of posthumous judgements when the person being criticized is no longer able to defend himself. Who are you to judge over other people’s lives?

  39. 50 Phillip Helbig July 16, 2014 at 07:30

    I never met Feynman. (Neither did his biographer James Gleick. Krauss did, briefly.) While we should not excuse bad behaviour, even if it was par for the course at the time, neither should we make something out to be bad behaviour when it is not, otherwise we end up looking like Andrea Dworkin claiming that all consensual sex is really rape in disguise.

    “What startled me the most was the fact that when he was a young, boyish looking professor at Cornell, Feynman used to pretend to be a student so he could ask undergraduate women out.”

    The way I remember the story, a while after his first wife died (it’s not clear whether the marriage was ever consummated), of TB, he wanted to meet some girls, so he went to a dance at Cornell. In order that he couldn’t be accused of taking advantage of his position, he was coy about his status. “Are you a freshman” the girls asked. “Well, no”. “A sophomore?” “No”. And so on. Then they try to be sympathetic “Hey, don’t worry about being a bit older; a lot of guys started college late because they were in the war”, thinking that he was an old student who was ashamed of not having finished on time. Then he decides that honesty is the best policy and tells them that he is a professor, at which point he gets slapped, probably because they thought he was lying.

    Another time, looking for a place to stay, he tried to get a room through the service which organized rooms for students. I don’t see this as “pretending”, as he didn’t lie, more “I’m a professor, but I’m still just an ordinary guy, so why not live with the students, eat with the students etc”. He didn’t pull rank and try to use his position to get better treatment. Nevertheless, someone noticed, and word got around that a professor was interested in student accommodation. Later, when again looking for accommodation, a guy said to Feynman “Listen, buddy, things are tight around here. Let me tell you how tight they are. Recently, even a professor tried to rent a dormitory room!” At this point, Feynman said “Hey, I was that professor, and I still don’t have a room!”

    I’ve read most of the Feynman books. I remember him as a guy who enjoyed women, but not as sexist in any sensible definition of the term. Sure, if he’s looking for someone for sex, as a heterosexual male he would be looking for women, not men. If that’s sexist, OK. Most people would understand “sexist” to mean some sort of discrimination against women, such as hiring a man as opposed to a better qualified woman. Is there any evidence Feynman did something like this? Yes, he enjoyed women as much as Mick Jagger or Gene Simmons (or I, for that matter), but what is “sexist” in that? It seems some people have the impression that just because he enjoyed women he was sexist.
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