Richard Feynman is not allowed to have sex.

A few days ago, a blog article was published by Matthew Francis called, “The Problem with Richard Feynman“. It got picked up by a few outlets, including 3 Quarks Daily. In the post, Francis argues that legendary physicist Richard Feynman should not be thought of as a hero – despite his significant contributions to science – because of some disreputable behavior and attitudes sprinkled over his 70 so odd years on earth.

I obviously agree that Feynman was flawed (so are you, dear reader, and so am I), but he certainly wasn’t flawed enough to deserve demotion from hero status, at least in my opinion (and also in the opinion of most commenters on the post). On the contrary, having studied Feynman pretty closely, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable things about him was that his heart seemed as big as his brain. One only needs to read the letter he wrote to his first wife, some 16 months after she passed away from tuberculosis, to get a sense of this. You might also watch this full-length documentary featuring interviews with several friends. The more I learned and continue to learn about Feynman, the more I feel a genuine respect, almost love, for the guy.

And so I had to respond to Francis’ bizarre post, which goes so far as to accuse Feynman of being a “sexual predator”:

…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?

Sexual predator? One has to assume – since Francis provides little evidence to support such a claim – that this accusation is in reference to Feynman’s admitted womanizing, chronicled in his autobiographies and elsewhere. The specific “facts” Francis lays out are as follows:

“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).”

That’s it. That’s all Francis points to. Those things make someone a sexual predator? Were the undergraduates underage? Were the wives of male grad students assaulted? Were the women in bars Jedi-mind tricked? Might it not be possible that women sometimes want sex, that Feynman was charming and seductive, and that these two forces occasionally found one another? Is Feynman not allowed to have or pursue sex (if that’s the criteria for being a sexual predator, who on earth isn’t?)? I’m not condoning affairs or leaving behind pregnant girlfriends (another accusation of Feynman strangely not covered in Francis’ article), but can any thinking person, with the limited knowledge we have about Feynman’s life, honestly equate these items to sexual predation? The answer is no, they can’t. Which means Francis either isn’t thinking or isn’t honest in this particular post.

With that out of the way, what about the fact that Feynman was sometimes “mean” to others? Shouldn’t such moral depravity disqualify him from being lauded as a hero? That seems to be the gist:

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.

A trifle unfair to take potshots at people who can’t defend themselves: say, like accusing a dead scientist of being a sexual predator? This entire criticism – that Feynman was occasionally mean or derisive – is almost too silly of an accusation for grown ups to even bother with, but I have to wonder what memoirs Francis is reading and whether or not he’s missing a bit of the point. For example, when Feynman comes across as the “smartest one in the room” in his essays, it’s almost always as a foil to some pompous or stuffy authoritarian figure or self-proclaimed expert. We all know Feynman perpetuated the “myth of Feynman” and that many of his stories and essays were heavily exaggerated or apocryphal (another reason it isn’t entirely responsible to use them to impugn), but we also know that Feynman was intensely honest and quick to admit when he knew little about a subject or specialty: “I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about…I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.” To see just how far the above passage stretches reality, here are a few quotes literally picked out in under two minutes by flipping at random through Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, that contradict Francis:

At that particular time I was not quite up to things: I was always a little behind. Everybody seemed to be smart, and I didn’t feel like I was keeping up.

I was ready to put my hand up and say, ‘Would you please define the problem better,’ but then I thought, ‘No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen.

I felt so stupid…He was always deflating me like that. He was a very smart fellow.

If Francis’ post had stuck with a premise like this: Feynman gets all kinds of attention for great things he did, but he was also human and did some bad things too and we have keep those things in mind – I wouldn’t have had a problem with it, and I don’t think many others would have either (other than that it’s maybe too obvious to merit a post). But to go so much further, to say that we shouldn’t consider Feynman a hero and – most egregiously – to accuse him of being a sexual predator, that’s where it all goes off the rails.

Francis’ final paragraph begins thus: “Feynman is no hero to us, brilliant as he was.” I’m not sure who the us is – the representatives of the website? – but Feynman is in fact a hero to me and to many others and will continue to be so. I’m not ignoring his flaws. I’m aware of them. Just as I’m aware of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s flaws. It’s just that I’m much more aware of these individual’s strengths, which are what we look to in heroes. Strengths are what inspire us. And inspiration is the reason we need heroes.

Richard Feynman’s rigorous defense of the scientific method, his intellectual integrity, his contagious enthusiasm for life and learning, his immense contributions to human knowledge – these qualities and more like them far overshadow the ill-advised romantic dalliances for a reason: they’re rare.

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3 comments

  1. Feynman was no Saint to be sure, but then again most folks in the limelight, no matter the profession, aren’t either. If you don’t believe me, then ask the Bishop’s daughter.

  2. THANK YOU! I just read this ludicrous article you mentioned and a few others which were almost as bad (or even worse). I was glad to find an article written by someone sharing my view as I was starting to feel that the internet was full of overly politically correct brainwashed morons.
    I feel that this kind of articles are an overreaction to excesses that were made in the past. Women weren’t treated equally for a long time so now everything you do is sexism, and just calling them out on their bullshit makes you a horrible human being (see the sandwich example in this horrifyingly stupid article: https://restructure.wordpress.com/2009/08/07/sexist-feynman-called-a-woman-worse-than-a-whore/). Blacks were enslaved and arabs were discriminated against so now you hear a lot of them saying people are being racist when they get called out on the bullshit they do. People used to smoke way to much so the government campaigned against that (rightly so) and informed us on it’s danger and now when you have a cigarette in a park for instance everybody acts as if you are endangering the life of the children playing 50 feets away. The problem is we have to do some campagning and “brainwashing” to get people to change and then they go too far in the right direction.
    The irony is the same conformity and lack of critical thinking which used to cause people to be sexist and to smoke too much is now what gets people to overreact around smoking people and defend women doing indefendable things like that women in the restructure article . I mean come on she pretends they are going to have a nice evening together and gets him to pay for a meal she is going to eat with some other guy. Calling her worse than a wore pretty much hits the nail on the head if you ask me. Another (otherwise pretty good -http://tech.mit.edu/V119/N10/col10lipman.10c.html- ) article basically pointed out that feynman wasn’t a role model for women because they couldn’t identify with him, what does the author want from him? Should he have worn a toupé so women would feel more comfortable around him and in science?
    Anyway, I hope you understand that it comes from the bottom of my deeply damaged and obviously incredibly misogynistic hearth when I tell you I just wasted a quarter hour posting an obscure comment on an obscure post on an obscure blog (no offence) because I was really glad to read your article and your title made me laugh.

  3. If Feynman was a young man right now, he would go MGTOW! He would scientifically, methodically analyse the prospects of relationships with women, sex and the logical outcome (children) and further (marriage) and ultimately (divorce) and know that it is never worth the risk. Because with divorce, women keep the children and are actively encouraged by the court system and attorneys to deny as much access of the children by the father as possible. This is so the father has to pay the maximum amount of child support possible to the mother. Then, if the man was married to the mother of his child(ren), he has to pay alimony as well.

    Feynman would look at this and see that the only logical choice is to put his sperm in a sperm bank for $240 USD a year to keep 5 or 6 vials and then immediately get a vasectomy. He could set it up so 3 different sperm banks each had 5 or 6 vials and pay about $720 a year for storage fees (sperm lasts longer than 40 years frozen) and then if he had sex after that, it would not result in any unplanned pregnancies. When he was really ready to have a child, he could contract with a surrogate and purchase donor eggs from a woman of his racial preference. Ricky Martin, the latin singer, did this. He has twin boys that are 6 years old now thanks to a surrogate and donor eggs he paid for. He’s the only legal parent on the birth certificate. No woman can take his children away or sue him for child support or joint custody.

    Men, go MGTOW! Google it! Listen to Sandman and some MGTOW 101 videos online at youtube. Especially listen to MGTOW Hybrid Experiments for some real deal, mind blowing stuff. And don’t marry! Have kids if you like but do not get married! (avoid common law marriage too… or you will lose at least half of what you own).

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