No Joking Matter: Feynman on Women (Feynman Part 1)

I recently read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. The book is a collection of vignettes by the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The title of the book refers to an awkward reaction he got at a prim Princeton social event, where he said yes to both lemon AND cream in his tea. But the phrase has broader relevance, as Feynman portrays himself as a wide-ranging jokester. He has stories about speaking fake Italian, picking locks on the filing cabinets at the national labs, and tricking people into thinking he could raise e to the 1.4 power in his head.

Most of these jokes rely on timeless, if nerdy, humor. I checked the publication date of the book because one of his motifs has not stood the test of time. His attitude toward women made me think that surely this book was from the 1960s? No, 1985. Whoa, not so long ago.

His first references to women were predictable and harmless. As a freshman at MIT:

I was not very good socially. I was so timid that when I had to take the mail out and walk past some seniors sitting on steps with some girls, I was petrified.

But then it becomes less predictable, and to my twenty-first century sensibilities, offensive.

As a new faculty member at Cornell, he describes “ogling the girls that would go by” in the library. And decades later, maintaining the old habit, noting the cuteness of the female physics student from Vancouver who requested he give a talk: “a beautiful blonde. That helped; [i]t’s not supposed to, but it did.” Does he get points for self-awareness? Not from me. Use the filter, Mr. Feynman.

A couple he met in New Mexico educated him on a topic of great interest to him: getting women he met in bars to sleep with him. Those mentors instructed him,

[U]nder no circumstances be a gentleman! You must disrespect the girls.

To follow this advice, he “adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches….[he] learned it till it was automatic.” Then he moves beyond his Jimmy Carter moment (substitute disrespect-in-his-brain for lust-in-his-heart) to his Harvey Weinstein moment, telling one of those girls that she is “worse than a WHORE” as part of his seduction. Ugh.

He also tried out this method on an “ordinary girl” (as opposed to a “bar girl”), and it worked on her too. “But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way.” Partial redemption. How much? About e-2.4.

Would these thoughts and actions qualify Dick for #metoo pariah status in 2019? Perhaps. But given his considerable intellect, and failing that, his publisher’s survival instinct, he would probably keep his thoughts out of broad circulation.

I’m not going to throw the genius baby out with the Neanderthal bathwater. Thus, there will be two more posts about this book, focused more on Feynman’s substance than his style. But I had to say my piece on this topic.

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