The problem of Richard Feynman


Via Jennifer Ouellette, Matthew R. Francis in Galileo's Pendulum:

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 leasttrying 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.

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.

More here.