Sex and physics!

By Sean Carroll | March 1, 2006 1:24 pm

I just like using these titles, little excuse is necessary. But I do have one: this article in Seed about philandering physicists. The point being that famous physicists of yore were often secret Casanovas, scribbling equations in their downtime between romantic trysts. I’m not sure this thesis would hold up to further scrutiny; it shouldn’t be too hard to come up with numerous counterexamples. It’s true that Einstein was more the raconteur than you might think, but I just can’t imagine, say, Julian Schwinger seducing young women with his patter about source theory. (Sir Isaac Newton reputedly died a virgin.) But there was an interesting question raised at the end of the article, about whether the apparent lack of dashing Don Juans on the current scene was emblematic of some change in the culture of modern physics. Or maybe we just haven’t heard about it yet. Besides, these days physicists are too busy blogging.

The article quoted science writer Jennifer Ouellette, and the enlightened folks at Seed were clever enough to link to her web page. From there I found that Jennifer has recently started a blog, Cocktail Party Physics, which is definitely worth checking out — it’s good to have people talking about science who really know how to write. An excerpt:

Surely there’s room for everyone at the physics table, provided everyone adheres to the rules of engagement (the scientific method) and, like Newton, doesn’t let their personal faith (or adherence to dogma) interfere with the data/evidence. I was always impressed with Richard Feynman’s take on the quantum revolution. Many early physicists, including Einstein, Niels Bohr, and Schroedinger himself, were deeply troubled by the implications of quantum physics. It seemed to defy not just common sense, but everything known thus far about how Nature worked at the macroscale. And yet the evidence kept mounting until they were forced to accept that Nature does indeed seem to work in such an irrational way at the subatomic level. Feynman said we didn’t have to like it, but as scientists (or, in my case, as a science writer), we must accept what the evidence tells us. Dogma — whether it comes in the form of organized religion, political correctness, or overly-zealous apoplectic physicists — has no place at the table, because by its very nature, it interferes with the process of scientific advancement. Ancora imparo: we are still learning. That’s part of the excitement of physics.

Jennifer’s blog reminds me a bit of inkycircus — having fun with the ideas of science, relating them to the wider world in which we all live. Room for everyone at the table.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Internet, Science and Society, Words
  • ThePolynomial

    Julian Schwinger? With a name like that I’d hope for more…

  • Kea

    “…about whether the apparent lack of dashing Don Juans on the current scene…”

    Dear me, Sean. You need to get out more! :)

  • citrine

    Sexual harrassment lawsuits etc. are often messy and expensive. In a competitive job market any indicators that one lacks personal restraint could weigh negatively in hiring and promotions. Do you think many colleges would risk potential sexual harrassment lawsuits by hiring an academic with a Casanova reputation?

  • allan

    Reminds me of a great line from last October’s Onion:
    Philandering String Theorist Can Explain Everything.

    As for particle physics, the tone of the field sure seems to have shifted; even with the arxiv, people seem much less willing to publically discuss (or publish) half-baked ideas than a generation ago – to brainstorm out loud, as it were. I bet most young theorists would say that bold and saucy wrong ideas are far worse for your career than tame and dry right ones. We’re risk-averse. Maybe that’s just what happens when a field gets huge and institutionalized — or disconnected from data. (Which predicts that more and more wild papers should appear as the LHC start date draws near…)

    That said, there are still loads of iconoclasts. Philandering or not.

  • Georg

    Hmm, from the kind of comment spam that I had to delete from my blog I would assume that physicists are still considered sexy — at least by non-existent girls who can’t spell :)

  • Plato

    You know, this quality I heard of as well, had been on my mind about I had heard of Feynman. But being something “ole fashion,” I think the greater message should been of family, of faithfulness to companionship?

    Let me revert to “something else” I learnt about Feynman.

    That I might shock you about “such honor” attributed to “love” in the relationship. After all, this part on sex, it came through anothers mouth too. Individuals, who had past it on from one mouth to another, all the while we are getting closer to the source.

    Might it have been biased by the individual writer? A discription on the scene, could some how “the truth” have filtered through?


    I’m not worried about my own future in heaven or hell. I have a theory about that that does come from science. I believe in scientific discoveries and therefore have a view about myself that is consistent. Now I’ve just been to the hospital and I don’t know how long I have to live. It happens to us sooner or later. Everybody dies. It’s just a matter of when. But with Arlene I was really happy for a while. So I have had it all. After Arlene, the rest of my life didn’t have to to be so good, you see, because I had already had it all

    Feynman’s Rainbow, by Leonard Mlodinow, pg 159 and 160

    So, we had not noticed this side of the man? I leave it now, for who Arlene was. I leave it, for those closest to him.

    I like to think more, on the perspective he had on science, then the attributes “good professors and mathematicians who would lead us into the “ethical behaviors debate,” as the sex proliferates our views of the man. One can realize the impact “that experience” had on Feynman? Tells us something about him?

  • Jim Harrison

    The real horndogs aren’t physicists but librarians like Cassanova and Georges Bataille. They’ll tell a girl anything to get ’em to open up only to shelve ’em immediately afterwards.

  • fh

    Where’s Pauli?

    Heisenberg writes about Paulis excellent knowledge of the Munich nightlife, and legend has it he came up with the exclusion principle while watching a cabaret show in Paris (he was married briefly to a cabaret performer actually).

  • Clifford

    Wait, fh!…. since when does excellent knowledge of a city’s nightlife (or even marriage to a Cabaret performer) make one into a Casanova? I feel I have to rise and defend the physicists who choose to have lives outside the standard box we’re usually put into!



  • Uncle Al

    Second day of an ACS meeting – horrible hangovers all around (and a few smiles).
    Second day of an APS meeting – it’s still a Star Trek convention (without the costumes).

    Physicists (especially the experimentalists) are under incredible pressure to get things right. Chemists are satisfied with yield. One therefore posits that string theory is the place to get lucky – not even a rumor of empirical constraint.

  • Simon

    I can’t believe that nobody has metioned Schrödinger…

    I quote:
    “To understand Schrödinger’s request for March we must digress a little and comment on Schrödinger’s liking for women. His relations with his wife had never been good and he had had many lovers with his wife’s knowledge. Anny had her own lover for many years, Schrödinger’s friend Weyl. Schrödinger’s request for March to be his assistant was because, at that time, he was in love with Arthur March’s wife Hilde.”

    To appoint a research assistant because you want an affair with his wife??
    He then went on to live in an openly bigamous relationship with both Hilde and his wife Anny.
    and it goes on, in total he had four daughters to four different women.

  • Frank

    Maybe the physicists today are more discreet? Maybe they’re not the “rock stars” that the Einsteins, et al. were to the general public, so have fewer opportunities? Maybe the greater number of women in the field has changed the culture? Maybe they don’t have the luxury of being “gentlemen scholars” like they used to, thus leaving less energy for l’amour? I can think of lots of reasons for this anecdotal lack of modern lotharios that have nothing to do with a “lack of genius” or whatever that seems to be the implication. “Ah, if only physicists today were the womanizers they used to be!” seems to be what some people want to sigh out.

  • Garrett

    Schrödinger was indeed the master of superposition.

  • Tez

    ES had three, not four, daughters.

  • robert

    Physicists seem to have an obsession with whether or not they are sexy. Perhaps this is a reflection of their so-called macho culture – my calculation/ experiment is bigger than yours, needle dick – that has of late been held responsible for the under-representation of women in their ranks. It’s something they should ‘get over’; some are sexy, and some aren’t. So what.

  • Adrian

    As the old saying goes, “Sex is physics…”

  • Matt

    Lattice gauge theorists are most discrete.

  • Elliot

    Perhaps one of the most bizarre stories regarding the intersection of sex and physics, is the fact that in the early 20th century, radium laced drinks were sold as aphrodisiacs,

    There is a story about one wealthy industrialist who developed cancer of the jaw by consuming these drinks which allegedly enhanced sexual performance.

    Strange but true.


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  • Chris Oakley

    Aaarrrggghh … I just “got” Matt’s joke (I’m a bit slow, as the brain isn’t working as well as it used to).

    Re: Feynman, I’m amazed that he owns up to his misdemeanours in his books … knocking a slice off his student’s wives, whoring, hanging out in strip clubs. Definitely taking the “What do you care what other people think?” philosophy on board, although I don’t suppose that his first wife really meant him to interpret her words in that way.

  • JoAnne


    How do you know that Schwinger’s young women counterparts weren’t fascinated about source theory and perhaps didn’t have their own ideas on the subject? Afterall, many young women I meet today are very well versed on the subject.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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