Field of Science

Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon

I fell in love with Richard Feynman when I was in middle school. That is when I discovered "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" in my dad's bookshelf. For the first few hours I laughed till tears were rolling out of my eyes. This was not science, it was choice entertainment of the highest order. Whether he was fixing radios by "thinking", blowing up the physics lab at Princeton to test his thoughts on a water sprinkler experiment or cracking top-secret safes at Los Alamos for pure amusement, there was no one like Feynman. This perception was shared by almost all his colleagues and millions of Feynman fans around the world. I was hooked. 

My appreciation for Feynman's quirks continued with James Gleick's brilliant biography of him as well as the more comprehensive account by Jagdish Mehra. Gelick's biography is the most accessible and evocative; Mehra's is the most scientific and complete. I also read Feynman's more philosophical takes on everything from science to religion documented through books like "The Character of Physical Law" and "The Meaning of it All". The Feynman saga continued in college when, guided by a patient professor, a friend and I painstakingly studied chapters from "The Feynman Lectures on Physics". Again, the experience was like nothing else in science that we had experienced. This was not physics, it was the physics of life. The lectures are actually not that great as a textbook in my opinion since they are quite unconventional, but you would be hard pressed to find anything comparable that really exposes you to a gut feeling for the principles of physics and its relevance to the universe around us. And unlike other texts Feynman showed you the way using colloquial, no frills language and everyday examples; he was clearly one of the earliest popularizers of science in this regard. 

By the time I got into graduate school I had thus read almost everything by or about this icon, save his technical work on quantum electrodynamics. And yet by that time cracks had begin to appear in the Feynman edifice. For one thing, I was starting to feel a little irritated by the "Feynman industry" that had sprung up about him, an industry that continued to churn out reprints of his books and CDs and DVDs of his lectures, not to mention an entire fleet of merchandise comprising Feynman t-shirts and mugs; Apple even featured him on their "Think Different" posters. That industry continues unabated, and while it has kept the Feynman legend alive, it has in fact transformed the physicist into more legend than a living and breathing man, full of human foibles and triumphs. Somewhere in the bongo playing, the safecracking and the nude sketching in topless bars is lost the real Feynman. It's an unfortunate development that has in part been engendered by Feynman himself, arising as it does from his own narration of his life as part comedy routine, part almost accidental Nobel Prize winning work. 

My first foray into taking a more critical view of Feynman came from his once arch-rival and contender for most brilliant theoretical physicist in the world, Murray Gell-Mann. Unlike many others Gell-Mann was never swayed by the Feynman legend, so he provides a good conduit through which to view the latter's personality. Although dismissing his status as some kind of a physics God, Gell-Mann genuinely admired Feynman's brilliance and originality - on this count there seems to be unanimous consensus - but his take on Feynman's personal quirks is more revealing. The main thing about Feynman that really got Gell-Mann's goat was that Feynman seemed to "spend a huge amount of time generating anecdotes about himself". Now that much would be clear to anyone who does even a perfunctory reading of "Surely You're Joking..." but Gell-Mann's opinion of Feynman seems to indicate a much more deliberate effort on Feynman's part to do this. Feynman often used to portray himself as some kind of working class city slicker thrown in the middle of distinguished, Sanskrit-quoting, tea-imbibing intellectuals at Princeton or Los Alamos, but the fact was that he relished being a contrarian among these people. A more careful reading of "Surely..." makes it clear that he got into thorny situations deliberately. One suspects that much of this was simply the result of boredom, but whatever the reason, it does give credence to Gell-Mann's observation about him trying hard to generate stories about himself. 

The deliberate generation of these stories could occasionally make Feynman appear like a jerk. A case in point concerns an anecdote when he kept the tip for a meal hidden beneath an inverted glass full of water. He wanted to illustrate to the waitress a clever way of sliding the glass over to the edge of the table, collecting the water without making it spill, and retrieving the tip. But of course he did not actually tell the waitress this; he wanted to simply play a prank so he left it to her to figure it out. The incident is actually trivial and those who would complain loudly about the poor woman having to mop up the water just to get her tip are exaggerating their case, but it does capture a central thread in the Feynman narrative, the physicist's often casual habit to inconvenience other people simply to prove a point, play a prank or conduct an experiment. He did this all his life, and a longer view of his life and career gives you the feeling that most of his colleagues put up with it not because they actually enjoyed it, but because they benefited from his brilliance too much to really bother about it. 

What started bothering me more the deeper I dug into Feynman's life was something quite different: his casual sexism. The latest insight into this comes from Lawrence Krauss's book "Quantum Man" which does a great job explaining the one thing about Feynman that should matter the most - his science. But Krauss also does not ignore the warts. 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. I suspect that this kind of behavior on the part of a contemporary professor would almost certainly lead to harsh disciplinary action, as it should. The behavior was clearly, egregiously wrong and when I read about it my view of Feynman definitely went down a notch, and a large notch at that. Feynman's apparent sexism was also the subject of a 2009 post with a sensationalist title; the post pointed out one chapter in "Surely..." in which Feynman documented various strategies he adopted for trying to get women in bars to sleep with him. Neither were Feynman's escapades limited to bars; more than one of his biographies have documented affairs with two married women, at least one of which caused him considerable problems. 

It's not surprising to find these anecdotes disturbing and even offensive, but I believe it would also be premature and simplistic to write off Richard Feynman as "sexist" across the board. People who want to accuse him of this seem to have inadvertently cherry-picked anecdotes; the nude painting in topless bars, the portrayal of a woman in a physics lesson as a clueless airhead, the propensity to lie on the beach and watch girls. But this view of Feynman misses the big picture. While not an excuse, several of his 1950s adventures were probably related to the deep pain and insecurity caused by the death of his first wife Arlene; by almost any account the two shared a very deep and special bond. It was also during the late 40s and early 50s that Feynman was doing some of his most intense work on quantum electrodynamics, and at least a few of the situations he narrates were part of him letting off steam. 

Also importantly, while some of Feynman's utterances and actions appear sexist to modern sensibilities, it's worth noting that they were probably no different than the attitudes of a male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years, a society in which women were supposed to take care of the house and children and men were seen as the bread winners. Thus, any side of Feynman that raises our eyebrows is really an aspect of a biased American society. In addition, 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 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. The fact that society in general behaved similarly to what he did of course does not excuse the things he did, but it also puts them in perspective. I think recognizing this perspective is important partly to understand how our views on sexism have changed for the better from 1950 to 2014. The encouraging development is that actions by Feynman - and male society in general - that were considered acceptable or amusing in 1950 would quite rightly cause instant outrage in 2014. We still have a long way to go before both genders achieve parity in science, but the change in attitudes is definitely encouraging. 

However the fact that simply dismissing Feynman as sexist is problematic is ascertained by this 1999 article from the MIT Tech (by a woman) which gives us a more complete picture of his views toward women. As far as we know, there is no evidence that Feynman discriminated against women in his career; the letters he writes to women in the collection of letters edited by his daughter indicate no bias. Both male and female students admired him. His sister Joan documents how he was always supportive of her own career in physics. At one point he came to the aid of a female professor filing a discrimination suit at Caltech. In addition he was a devoted husband to his first and third wife and a loving and supportive father to his daughter who in fact tried hard to get her interested in science.

The irony thus seems to be that, just like Feynman was fond of generating cherry picked anecdotes about himself, we seem to be fond of generating skewed, cherry picked anecdotes about him that accuse him of sexism. In fact most conversations about Feynman seem to center on a few select anecdotes that showcase some side of his character, whether positive or negative, and this anecdotal reading of his life is something he himself encouraged. But a more complete view of Feynman's life and career indicates otherwise. My own perceptions of Feynman have changed, and that's the way it should be. At first I idolized Feynman like many others, but over time, as a more careful reading of his life revealed some of the unseemlier sides of his character, I became aware of his flaws. While I still love his lectures and science, these flaws have affected my perception of his personality, and I am glad they did. There are things that he said or did that are clearly wrong or questionable at the very least, but we can at least be grateful that we have evolved to a stage where even the few instances of his behavior that have been documented would not be tolerated on today's college campuses and would be instantly condemned. As a man I do not now admire Feynman as much as I did before, but I am also glad to have a more complete understanding of his life and times. 

However I think it's also important that we don't make the same mistake that the "Feynman industry" has made - focus on a part of the celebrated physicist's life and ignore many others. Feynman was a brilliant physicist, Feynman was occasionally sexist - and sometimes disturbingly so - and Feynman also supported women in science. All these facts are equally true. One reason why it's interesting to explore these contradictory sides of Feynman's personality is because he is not a scientist who is usually regarded as complicated and contradictory, but the facts indicate that he was. Feynman himself did a kind of disservice by sending a few wrong messages through the recounting of his adventures, and others have performed an equal disservice by embellishing his achievements and papering over his ugly side. But knowing his emphasis on honesty and integrity in science - one ethic that does consistently shine forth from the narrative of his life - he would almost certainly want us to do better and locate the narrative of his life in a more realistic milieu. We can condemn parts of his behavior while praising his science. And we should.

This post was originally posted on Scientific American. I am no longer blogging on that network and will be writing here.

30 comments:

  1. It's good to read this overview relating the man to his time in a manner similar to the many treatments of Aristotle's attitude towards slavery.

    How quickly people forget how the current "normal" becomes aberrant.

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  2. It is absolutely bizarre that this post was deleted by Scientific American.

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  3. Feyman was a normal guy. Shokcing.

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  4. Glad you have a new home, Ash. Scientific UNamerican magazine used to have a purpose -- as the wrapper for Martin Gardner's "Mathematical Games" column... today, not so much.

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  5. Feynman himself said, " the first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." Seems to me he knew his own weaknesses, and was very open in acknowledging that. He was an authentic human and took no shame it.

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  6. I recently interviewed a brilliant physicist who knew him - she was his colleague and as soon as I started to discuss him, she immediately said, "he hated women" and that he dismissed her as a physicist because she is a woman. The same woman would regularly receive death threats whilst studying and working in physics in the USA in the 1950s and 60s.

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    1. Of course, "we" are supposed to immediately take this woman at her word? If she was "regularly receiving death threats" -- perhaps SHE was one-half of that dance?! Is there another woman who reports such vitriol and impressions of hate from Feynman? How can you balance this one woman -- with her report of being a target 'from so many' -- with the reports by many others that he was no more sexist -- and, in fact, more supportive and helpful -- to women? Oz Zafur (sp?) has some great words about how some/many folks CHOOSE situation in which they are mistreated (e.g., the woman who puts an abusive husband in jail, and then married another... What of HER culpability for her own bad choices?)

      Can this brilliant physicist you interviewed perhaps own some of her own mistreatment?

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    2. More fundamentally, should we even believe this testimony from an anonymous poster who leaves the woman scientist unnamed?

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  7. Thank you for the post and standing by the truth. I also think that it's best for you and science to blog here. Maybe you will not able to reach that many readers. But, you will be able to express your opinions freely now.

    It is sad to see that some people (and "scientists") can forget or ignore what he did for the humanity (if those people know anything about his science of course) and simply blame him for being "sexist.

    I can't believe that people can label him as "sexist" based upon couple stories he wrote and a few anecdotes. Apparently, this is all the "evidence" present. If he was anything to blame for, we should blame him for being honest and brave enough to write his embarrassing moments. I wonder if any of these people who criticize him can be honest enough to tell the truth about themselves ever.

    It is a shame that "scientists" who should be supporting freedom of speech can try to lobby against bloggers', writers' and individuals' ideas and try to censor them.

    If hope you keep writing what you believe in to be the truth.

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  8. Oh, the pain. Serves you right for idolizing him, the more precipitous one's idol strikes one full in the face in its fall. Yeah, he was a woman chaser. Would you like to dwell on several hundred other great names in science who were or are also similarly pixilated? I can supply them, but I wouldn't want to hurt anybody's precious object of idolatry.

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  9. Thanks for the comments, all. It's indeed good to be moving (back) to my home of 10 years. While I have enjoyed blogging on Sci Am for two years, it's true that I will appreciate the flexibility of blogging about all my interests on this site.

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  10. Ash,

    I glad you left a trail to follow. I read your post and I was not incensed with indignation. That left me feeling a little disappointed after first reading two posts that clearly thought you had said something wrong. It seems that the Feynman habit of picking up women in a bar is universally viewed as his greatest act of sexism. A single man, or woman, going to a bar to hook up for the night is now considered by some as an act of sexism seems a bit extreme. As long as no coercion or drugs are involved this seems to me to be the still accepted and most popular way for young folks to meet and perhaps pursue a relationship, even if it is only for a few hours. Besides the two bloggers who think this is despicable behavior has anyone else been attacking this traditional form of social interaction?

    I am more troubled with Feynman’s misrepresentation of his faculty status to coeds and his pursuit of married women. The former being much more offensive but the latter has always been considered bad form. I do agree with the thrust of your post as you sum up in the last two paragraphs.

    I would also mention that Einstein enjoys a celebrity industry and it is possible to find references you his pursuit of women while married to his second wife. But Einstein did not brag about is exploits so it is not commonly written about.

    Marie Curie had an affair with a married man. I think he was separated from his wife at the time but it caused a scandal. I guess Marie is not commonly rebuked these days because it was a onetime incident.

    If you want to read about a truly sexually ‘enlightened’ individual in the history of science look at the personal life of Erwin Schrödinger.

    I will get the hang of posting here eventually...I selected Anonymous because that seemed easiest.
    M Tucker

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  11. Was it Pauling who was suspected of an affair with Oppenheimer's wife, or the other way round? Can't recall.

    As for the times, just a glance at the Sinatra booze fests on stage at the Sahara (youtube) reveals the broadly acceptable sexual objectification of women of the period, seen as a badge of honor in some university circles.

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  12. How Scientific American would remove this, while letting Stemwedel's vitriol remain is weird. I have cancelled my subscription to the magazine, and worry about science in general if political BS now means that a man that likes picking up women is sexist. I seriously wonder if Stemwedel has ever observed what occurs in a bar or nightclub, Feynman apparently experimented with the scientific method to find a way to get laid easily, and she chooses to ignore reality.

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  13. I think his explanation of passing as a student made sense. Anyone in his early 20's telling a girl he was a professor of physics who had worked as an atomic bomb designer would be taken as sociopathic liar or some maybe harmless but definitely unibterseting fabulating idiot. The affairs were between consenting adults and are of no import...

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  14. Appalling that this simple, well-argued blog post was actually considered so incendiary that Scientific American felt the need to (temporarily at least) unpublish it and part company with the author, while apparently having no problem with Stemwedel's vitriolic articles. It's sad to see that SA is the latest to cave to the party line "social justice" mentality - that when somebody, in this case Feynman, is declared an Enemy of the People, anybody who even offers a halfway defense is also to be purged

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  15. Peter G Werner: Welcome to feminism. you will be assimilated. Any dissent will result in character attacks and the anything but rational discourse. If their position is so valid, why do they censor rational discourse?

    Who wants to spam twitter with feynman quotes for a few days?

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  16. I like this post, though I would like to see a more coherent definition of "sexism" that distinguishes various types of conduct.

    Having a deep attraction to beautiful women (or having the urge to fornicate with such women) has no place in a discussion of "sexism."

    Gender-based bias is terrible. Our sexual urges are something else entirely, and by bringing them up in this context, it dissipates the horror of real gender-based bias.

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  17. A response to recent events at Sci Am Blogs http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/2014/07/a-response-to-recent-events.html

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  18. I think you're using the word "sexism" in an unconventional way. Most of these anecdotes people would describe as "heterosexual".

    I'm like you, not a Feynman fan anymore. I had never heard something critical about him before your post; relieved there are other people out there who agree.

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  19. Would someone please point out to me the part of this article that is "controversial"? I don't understand why SA would take this excellent article down.

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  20. Feynman is a sexist? Then what is Bill Clinton? They were human then, we are human now, and all of us are imperfect, no matter how hard we try to be otherwise. It will be (almost) forever thus. Embrace humility and compassion.

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  21. What is a sexist? Isn't it a form of bigotry? Of prejudice? Of hatefulness? I see none of these elements in Feynman's reports of his behavior with women and of the results of his experiences with them. He was just being a scientist, curious about everything.

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  22. Ash,

    I also think that R.P. Feynman was a great scientist and a, as he subtitled his book, a curious character. I found nothing "controversial" about this article that shows how your views of him have changed as you've read more about him. That is natural as was Feynman's behavior for his time.

    I think it's ridiculous that Scientific American has decided to remove you from their blogger pool. There was no reason for that. I understand that they have that prerogative but they need to be rational about it. It's hearing things like this and the ads in the magazine that promote conferences that feature the rationally impaired like Andrew Weil that make me second guess my subscription. If the science articles weren't so good, it might be time to say goodbye to SciAm.

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  23. That Feynman, a Nobel prize winner, should exhibit non-pc thoughts and behavior is ABSOLUTLEY SCHOCKLEY!!!

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  24. Wait, what?

    "As far as we know, there is no evidence that Feynman discriminated against women in his career; the letters he writes to women in the collection of letters edited by his daughter indicate no bias. Both male and female students admired him. His sister Joan documents how he was always supportive of her own career in physics. At one point he came to the aid of a female professor filing a discrimination suit at Caltech. In addition he was a devoted husband to his first and third wife and a loving and supportive father to his daughter who in fact tried hard to get her interested in science."

    So by your summary he was - in a time when women in Australia were suing airlines so they could become pilots - entirely even-handed towards men and women in his professional capacity.

    Surely, the title of this article should be "Feynman was not sexist"?

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  25. Ah! I get it, you thought the 'ist' in 'sexist' is the same as the 'ist' in 'artist' or 'pianist' or 'florist'. It's probably a common mistake. While an 'artist' is indeed someone who does art, a 'sexist' is not just a term for anyone who does sex.

    Good article, ridiculous conclusion.

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  26. dude, what's your problem with watching girls on the beach? it's totally normal

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  27. You could write an almost identical article about, for example, Einstein. Or Gandhi. Or JFK. Or...

    The common factor is that they're human. Which is, of course, the entire point of this article - not missed.

    The point of this comment is that Feynman is / was exactly as one should expect.

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