Consider Feynman in all his manifestations

If you click on the “Richard Feynman” tag of this blog you will find he features quite often. He was a great physicist who had an enormous impact on the field in general and on particle physics in particular (no pun intended but it was hard to avoid). His lectures both inspired and helped me through my degree and I still recommend them to students.

I also, in my late teens, enjoyed reading his collection of anecdotes, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”. I probably took from it “proof that nerdy men can be funny, popular, and (reputedly) successful with women”, a reassurance I reckon I needed at the time. I think, though memory can be treacherous, that I was taken aback by the now quite notoriously misogynistic chapter on his interactions with bar girls, but assimilated this as him simply playing a role at a particular time in his life.

The reason for this post is this article by Aida Behmard, published yesterday in CalTech Letters.

Behmard gives a generous and realistic assessment, not so much of Feynman himself but of the impact his uncritical idolisation can have on current scientific culture and its ongoing problems with bias and harassment. The title of my post, and the “nerdy men” quote above, come from there. I strongly recommend you read it, especially if you have a tendency toward uncritical hero worship. If you are going to laud Feynman as a great physicist, you are on very firm ground. However, if you are going to praise him as a “great guy” (as he undoubtedly sometimes was), you need to read this and be aware that sometimes and in some aspects he certainly wasn’t. Judging the past, and judging people full stop, is a nuanced and uncertain business. Hero or villain is rarely the full story, of course.

I say that Behmard’s nuanced article is generous for the following reason. Unlike her, as I continued in physics, I was allowed to remain largely unaware of harassment and bias in the field. This is of course because I am a member of the majority grouping (see here for more on that). This condition of ignorance persisted to a significant extent until I became a head of department, at which point I was educated rather quickly. Behmard, as she describes in her piece, was not in such a privileged position. Her clear-eyed view of Feynman’s present influence is the more impressive for that.

Anyway, I want to leave this post here to round out the picture of Feynman you might get from the other posts on this blog (and likely future ones). Once more; I enjoyed “Surely you’re joking…” and will continue to use Feynman quotes as and when, I continue to recommend the Feynman lectures. And I strongly recommend you read this.


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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