Posts Tagged 'scientific mythology'

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.


  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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