What Richard Feynman didn't understand about women


Please avoid:

  • Victim-blaming
  • “This happens to men too”
  • “Not all men”

And similar defensive derailments.


Well, chaps, we had a decent run and all that, don’t’ch’know. But the game’s up. May’s well totter orff to the old cottage, eh, what?


I thought Feynman’s sexism was well-known. I seem to remember a story posted here in BB that described Feynman’s late working environment, where every day he would turn to the nearest female (engineer, secretary, whatever) and tell them to bring him his soup.


Feynman was from a very different generation than the author of this article.

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Based on independent accounts of his life I’ve read (i.e. not “Surely You’re Joking” or “What Do You Care?”), Feynman seemed kind of a dick, in general. There’s really no need to reconcile his personality with his contributions to physics.


On a related note, I also found this quote interesting:

The charming side of Richard helped people forgive him for his uncharming characteristics. For example, in many ways Richard was a sexist. Whenever it came time for his daily bowl of soup he would look around for the nearest “girl” and ask if she would fetch it to him. It did not matter if she was the cook, an engineer, or the president of the company. I once asked a female engineer who had just been a victim of this if it bothered her. “Yes, it really annoys me,” she said. “On the other hand, he is the only one who ever explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it.” That was the essence of Richard’s charm.

I’m not sure “charm” is the right way of describing it, but it’s another perspective.

Source: http://longnow.org/essays/richard-feynman-connection-machine/


Nerd doesn’t understand women: News at 11


I don’t want to make excuses for Feynman, but… if you watch the video (it’s on YouTube) it’s clear that Feynman is telling a deliberately self-deprecating story about himself as a younger man, struggling with the memes of the society he was living in, as I recall, Forties New York.

Also, I’m not sure of the timing, but I think this is after the death of his first wife and love of his life, and the end of the Manhattan Project. It was a difficult time for Feynman personally, and a different time. They did things differently then, and this is what “they” means: individuals like Feynman, not a vague mass of “others”. Yeah, Feynman was a bit of a dick, or a lot of one, I don’t know, but so were a lot of people.


Wait, does that mean women, who are also nerds, don’t understand themselves? That’s some profound stuff. You’re really blowing my mind here, bro.


reminder, if you will, that likeability and charm (and talent) aren’t proof of kindness and someone worthy of respect and worthy of your trust.

This is definitely true. But I might take another lesson from this as well. Real people have both good and bad. Somebody you like, somebody you really respect, is likely to have something about them that you don’t like. If you’re lucky, it’s smoething minor. There’s not a small chance, however, that it’s something major. And, on the flip side, somebody who has something about him you really don’t like might also have some redeeming qualities. Isaac Newton, evidently, was an utter arrogant jerk, the kind of person that is all over academia and that sometimes I think is one of the biggest problems with academia. Yet, he was also brilliant, and gave the world tremendous things, and we shouldn’t stop celebrating him because he was also a jerk.

(“Thomas Jefferson had slaves.”)

People are complicated. With current people, you can hope to change their behavior. With historical figures, we should continue to respect and celebrate their contributions and the great things they did, while being aware that there are probably also things about them we wouldn’t like-- and not use the bad things as a reason to write them off as no longer worthy of respect for the good things they did. But we should also remember that they were people, and as such, had flaws, perhaps big ones.


“Again, I’m still thinking about what I think about this and how it affects my views on Feynman”

Just let it go. I find with all things, one has to separate the art from the artist - or I guess in this case the science from the asshole.

If you look deep enough into just about anyone you will find something distasteful about them, from minor youthful indiscretions or drunken slandering, to more major character flaws, to exceptionally vile behavior. I think one can still like and enjoy a person’s positive contributions, with out condoning their negative ones. Of course there is a balancing act, and a tipping point where a person’s negative traits can outweigh their positive ones.

There is also the context of the times when people lived. Our modern views of sexism and racism means most everyone in the past was guilty of those transgressions to one degree or another.


Don’t remember that one, but the story above was mentioned here by Cory as

his embarrassing writings on convincing women to have sex with him, in which he comes across as a sexist pig

Oh, and ‘fount of’, not ‘font of’.


I would add that it is possible to simultaneously respect someone for their achievements, and dislike them for their personality. One does not excuse/diminish the other. I find it disingenuous to dismiss Feynman’s flaws as a person, excusing them as an artifact of a different era. Similarly, I find it bizarre to criticize Orson Scott Card’s writing because of his homophobic views.


Remember, folks, casual sexism was still acceptable as recently as the 70’s and 80’s.

For comparison, Feynman was born the year World War I ended, worked on the Manhattan project after college in World War II, was middle aged when JFK was shot, was an old man when Challenger exploded, and died two years later in 1988 at the age of 70. He didn’t live to see the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.

The modern age is weird. It hasn’t even been a full century since the Ottoman Empire was a real, legitimate, frightening-to-the-Western-world thing.


It’s worth keeping in mind that, as I understand it, Feynman had a high school sweetheart with whom he had a completely wholesome all-American soda shop relationship. She then died of late-diagnosed tuberculosis, something for which Feynman blamed himself and his naïveté in trusting the doctors. He reviewed the medical record after the fact and concluded (rightly or wrongly) that he could have done a better job than the doctors.

Second, this was in the golden age of American sociopathic imperialist science à la John von Neumann, combined with the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ which, like all revolutions, had some unpleasant bits.

Neither of these excuse Feynman, of course, but it’s a worthwhile context to keep in mind.


I wonder how this fits with his mentoring of his (younger) sister Joan in the Feynman graphic novel.

“font” is an acceptable spelling for this sense of the word.


Approximately 50% of nerds are women.


Feynman prided himself on plain speaking and not abiding social norms. He openly spoke about things most men would keep secret or only say in unmixed company, so to speak. We can thank him for being open and honest in his dealings and revealing the hypocrisy of the times he lived in.

Now we live in times when everyone is expected to check every expression to make sure it doesn’t offend or oppress. It might result in a more civil society. We will see.

Feynman’s approach was about flushing out the facts and coming to an understanding of how the world works. It extended to his personal life as well. Yeah, he was a product of his moment. I think that maybe his openness and willingness to talk about verboten things may have contributed to the good changes we have seen since. Wishful thinking?