Recently, we’ve had a couple of posts on Richard Feynman. I thought about responding at the time, but I’ve been choosing my battles carefully lately. Last night a conversation on Bluesky convinced me to say something.
Richard Feynman was a misogynist asshole. There’s no mitigating that. His contributions to both pedagogy and finding the Challenger problem were unique only in his ability to promote himself.
When I came to Los Alamos and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (as it was in 1965), I heard about him as well as other Manhattan Project participants. I’ve never seen practical joking as something to admire, but I figured it takes all types. There has long been an admiration among some scientists for a big-mouth know-it-all physicist who is willing to humiliate others.
Co-workers were excited when Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman was published in 1985. Feynman tells all! I was horrified at the level of misogyny when I read it. The assholeness did not mitigate it. It revised my opinions of a few people and made clear to me how ingrained were some of the things I experienced at the Lab.
I can’t judge his contributions to physics. The conundrum of how to admire the work of flawed people remains.
Feynman was a product of his time. Let’s be clear that we don’t need another like him.