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Finding the Real Feynman

Julia C. Lipman

Admit it, you wanted to be a theoretical physicist. It could have been a brief thought that crossed your mind once or twice or a dream that lasted all through high school. Maybe you’re a theoretical physicist now. But I don’t think anyone makes it to MIT without ever thinking about being the next Richard Feynman.

Yes, Richard Feynman. His fellow physicist Murray Gell-Mann grumbled that he “spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself,” and indeed it is by these collections of anecdotes, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and its sequel What Do You Care What Other People Think?, that most of us know Feynman. Even if you can’t remember what he won the Nobel Prize for, you might know that he fixed radios as a boy, that he cracked safes while working on the bomb at Los Alamos, that he played the bongo drums. All of these things are part of the mythology of Feynman.

More than any other scientist of his era, Feynman’s life became more important to the general, non-scientist public than his science. Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan may have large public followings, but it is because of their books popularizing science, not any speculation about their personal lives. Feynman, on the other hand, was someone we could all identify with. What MIT student can’t identify with someone who thumbed his nose at the stuffy conformity of Princeton? Later in life, he took on bureaucratic regulations, Nobel-ceremony pomp, poorly written science textbooks, and the official governmental doublespeak following the Challenger explosion.

But among his charming, subversive anecdotes of a fully-lived scientific life, there are more disturbing revelations. Feynman gleefully wrote about his incessant womanizing. In Surely You’re Joking, he discusses his method of never buying a “girl” drinks until he asks her to sleep with him and she says yes. It’s hard to believe that he was never turned down, either by the “bar girls” or by the sister of a graduate student that he tried this on, but he never mentions rejection. When he forgets the routine and buys a woman a sandwich before she’s agreed to sleep with him, he tells her, “You are worse than a whore.” She pays him back and sleeps with him as well.

His career took place in a different era than ours, an era when Feynman, as a Caltech professor, didn’t have to think twice about asking a student to pose as a nude model for him. But even then, there were some who felt that his sexism contributed to a chilly environment for women in science. Protesters passing out leaflets referring to him as “Richard P. (for Pig) Feynman” objected to his use of sexist stories about “lady drivers” and clueless women in his lectures. When such protesters threatened to disrupt a talk he was giving, he began the lecture by patronizingly remarking that it “should be especially interesting to the women in the audience,” and then proceeded to discuss an arcane physics topic.

The protesters may have overreacted; after all, Feynman was beloved of both his male and female students. Other than the occasional sexist story told in a lecture, there’s no evidence to suggest that he supported or practiced any kind of discrimination in science. And it’s hard to get angry over anything as quaint as a story about a “lady driver.” The real problem is not with his actual teaching, but with his public persona. Feynman’s popular stories provide inspiration for aspiring scientists, but how can an aspiring female scientist fully identify with him? It’s just one more indication that she can never really be one of the boys. Whether or not Feynman wanted to be a role model for a generation of future scientists, he’s been given that title.

Feynman took the side of a female Caltech professor who brought a sexual discrimination complaint against the school. He encouraged his younger sister’s career as a physicist even though their parents didn’t believe that women should pursue scientific careers. But the popular mythology of Feynman, the mythology that he created, prefers to emphasize his predilection for working out physics problems on napkins in a topless bar. So we can’t just skip over the chapters in his books about Las Vegas prostitutes and showgirls, cleaning up his image the way the Postal Service airbrushed a cigarette out of stamp with a picture of Jackson Pollock. He remains a troubling figure in many ways for the women science students who would attempt to identify with him.

There is much to be learned from Feynman’s science, and there is also much to be learned from his life. But as science becomes a more inclusive field, there are more and more role models, male and female, that women can identify with. The next generation of women will have both Feynman’s example and the examples of women scientists with whom they can more fully identify. It’s up to us.