Charming

By Sean Carroll | May 30, 2008 11:19 am

Via Swans on Tea, a great article about Richard Feynman’s days in the 1980’s working for Thinking Machines on their groundbreaking massively-parallel computers. (Reprinted from Physics Today.)

Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”

But then there is this:

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.

“Charming” and “sexist” are not actually exclusive properties. We don’t have to say “he is sexist, but very charming, so it’s okay”; nor do we have to say “he is a brilliant and charming man, but incorrigibly sexist, and therefore cannot be admitted to possess any good qualities.” People can be talented and charismatic and warmly human, and yet have a looming blind spot when it comes to gender.

All of which is perfectly obvious, but worth reiterating because the pervasive culture of science is steeped in a sort of geeky pseudo-machismo that is handed down through the generations. Charming it may be, but far from harmless. The latest evidence to add to the teetering pile comes from a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, who looked at the career paths of women in science, engineering, and technology.

Based on data from 2,493 workers (1,493 women and 1,000 men) polled from March 2006 through October 2007 and hundreds more interviewed in focus groups, the report paints a portrait of a macho culture where women are very much outsiders, and where those who do enter are likely to eventually leave…

They also do well at the start, with 75 percent of women age 25 to 29 being described as “superb,” “excellent” or “outstanding” on their performance reviews, words used for 61 percent of men in the same age group.

An exodus occurs around age 35 to 40. Fifty-two percent drop out, the report warned, with some leaving for “softer” jobs in the sciences human resources rather than lab bench work, for instance, and others for different work entirely. That is twice the rate of men in the SET industries, and higher than the attrition rate of women in law or investment banking.

The reasons pinpointed in the report are many, but they all have their roots in what the authors describe as a pervasive macho culture.

Engineers have their “hard hat culture,” while biological and chemical scientists find themselves in the “lab coat” culture and computer experts inhabit a “geek culture.” What they all have in common is that they are “at best unsupportive and at worst downright hostile to women,” the study said.

Too many scientists figure that, if someone leaves the field, it must have been because they weren’t good enough. There are other reasons. Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science would not only make for happier people, it would make for better science.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Women in Science
  • Petr

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

    We shouldn’t forget that Feynman has an explanation: he graduated college in 1938 when, like or no, the world was sexist (and anti-semitic: Feynman went to MIT because Columbia had filled their “Jewish quota” for that year). This means that his sexism was a cultural inculcation, rather than a personal failing, whereas his charm was a personal trait. My own father, who was born in 1938, often railed against “women drivers” well into the 1980’s. When he learned to drive, women drivers were an extreme rarity.

    Does this excuse their behaviours? It excuses them from being judged by the standards of today but it also provides a window to better judge our progress.

    Culturally, science can be an enviroment of intense hostility and petty competition in and of itself. I’m not convinced that hostility, be it directed at either gender, can be fundamentally sexist. Nor can I see, given our undoubted progress in this regard, how sexism can sustain itself in the face of overwhelming anti-sexist pressure in the world at large. Although I’ll allow that a male of lesser character would use the fact of gender as in a hostile moment I can’t say whether this is because the male is sexist or simply because he knows it’s a sensitive subject and thus an effective weapon. I guess it is the difference between immoral and amoral behaviour.

  • Koray

    As I don’t work in investment banking or law, I’d like to know how they are more supportive and less hostile to women. That nerds are the hardcore machos is surprising to me.

  • anonymous woman scientist

    Sean: “Providing equal encouragement to everyone entering into science … would make for better science.”

    How so?

    (Seriously, I hope you will attempt to explain what you meant, because right now I am tempted to dismiss this post as an ill-conceived attempt to be politically correct.)

  • Joshua

    AWS, I think Sean meant that providing equal encouragement will make for better science since then people who are very talented will not be forced out of science due to the “machismo pressure”. More talented scientists = Better science.

    People shouldn’t fail because they can’t handle the “scientific environment,” they should only fail by not doing good science.

  • Ijon Tichy

    I don’t think people, especially adults, should be encouraged to continue working in the hard sciences. If I had been encouraged to finish my PhD thesis and embark on a professional career in astronomy, I would have become just another mediocre astronomer, doing unremarkable work of no real consequence. If you’re a genius or just an obsessive, smart person, you won’t need any encouragement to continue with your chosen field; the intellectual rewards will be enough.

    On the other hand, sexism is anti-human, and should be stamped out in all workplaces and institutions. Why should men be getting more encouragement than women? Why should women be receiving more discouragement than men? Feynman was a sexist pig, but men and women forgave him for such primitive behaviour because he was “charming” and “explained quantum mechanics to me as if I could understand it”. That’s fucked up.

  • Sam Gralla

    I don’t think we need equal encouragement to have more female scientists; I think we just need more encouragement. I think we already basically have equal encouragement for males and females–the sexists are busy retiring as the equal encouragers take over the positions of power. The problem is, while equal encouragers do encourage equally, they don’t really encourage much at all. Females tend to need more encouragement than males (and let’s please not debate whether this need is innate or acquired), and this low level of encouraging all too often falls below their threshold. If we could just encourage everybody more, we’d have more female scientists. I’d say astronomy and astrophysics is poster child for the success of this approach.

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    Ijon Tichy,

    I thought you had some thought provoking ideas in your first paragraph, but I don’t really agree with the second.

    Sexism may be anti-human, but it’s also characteristically human, found in every culture and time, just like every other prejudice. I don’t think you can stamp it out without breeding a new set of humans, possibly ones with men and women just alike. That doesn’t mean it’s good, any more than war, murder, rape, theft and all those other essentially human but annoyingly primitive characteristics are. You may supress it, but it will linger in the human subconciousness for the very good reasons that virtually every previous human society has found it convenient to specialize sex roles. A million years of evolution isn’t so easily discarded as last years fashionable diet.

    No doubt the female engineer, cook, company president found Feynman’s requests annoying, but it is a bit much to equate them with truly serious offenses against women like honor killings and forced marriages.

    The question I can’t get out of my mind is this: Why didn’t any of those women say “get your own damn soup old man!” It’s not like he owned the company. I have a sneaking suspicion that Feynman, amateur scientist of human behavior, was wondering how many times he would have to perform the experiment to get that result.

  • rod

    Feynman was a genius. He should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his flaws.

    This kind of “homage” is of poor-taste, IMHO. Feynman died 20 years ago. He’s not here to defend himself. Moreover, he lived in another time, and judging him by today’s standards is unfair (like Petr said before).

    What’s the point of all of this?!? Is is a “Let’s bash Feynman so what we look less mediocre by comparison” kind of thing? I don’t get it. I really don’t. This is sad.

  • jonm

    Unlike some posters, I wouldn’t give Feynman a pass ; it sounds like he was being a pig. That said, my thoughts on the NY Times articled …

    The survey results aren’t detailed enough to be useful, in particular we are not told how many of the women aged 35-40 dropped out to have families, or what the drop-out rate is for women who do not have children. Anecdotes are even more useless than normal when filtered through an organization that clearly has its agenda to pitch.

    The nature of the work itself may play a part. That the drop-out rate for investment banking is lower argues against a macho culture being significant. It seems to me that pharma companies have a lot of women and are female- and family- friendly, whereas engineering firms, especially the big EPC companies who build things like oil facilities and chemical plants abroad are more male-dominated, more macho and less family friendly. Aerospace companies fall somewhere in between.

    What are the comparable results for countries like Denmark and Sweden that are much more family-friendly?

    If it would greatly benefit competing firms and universities to introduce drastically more women-friendly policies (whether you think of this as granting equal conditions, or granting special privileges), then why aren’t they doing more already? Why hasn’t someone figured it out and prospered from it?

  • fh

    If you want hardcore machos try the humanities. 90% female undergrad 10% female faculty in psychology in my old University. The fact that physics there goes from 15% to 10% is positively benign by comparison.

    If the macho culture is less then what it is in other fields of academia wouldn’t it indicate that it is not a SET problem but rather a more general issue that find’s its particular expression everywhere, but which is actually less prevelant in SET academia?

    (Though of course the 15% undergrad ratio tells us that it is much more so in general society. Though then one should also maintain that it is a real pity that men are discouraged from studying psychology by social pressure. In other words it’s a more symmetric kind of sexism we’re dealing with then.)

  • fh

    “Why hasn’t someone figured it out and prospered from it?”

    Because the invisible hand of the market is a particular idealization that is applicable in some circumstances, subject to the social context? If people were as rational as that question suggests we wouldn’t have the problem in the first place I guess….

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    “He should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his flaws.”

    Why?

  • Ijon Tichy

    capitalistimperialistpig,

    Sexism, by definition, is anti-human, i.e. against humans, but clearly it has been ubiquitous in cultures, societies and civilisations throughout the ages. I have no idea how much of it is due to nature, and how much to nurture. What I do know is that it’s a bad thing and it harms people, emotionally and/or physically. A sexist is not a complete human being, but rather a morally stunted sub-human. Same goes for racists and magical thinkers. Obviously, there is a spectrum of sexist behaviours ranging from mild to extreme; only an idiot would equate Feynman’s behaviour with honour killings and forced marriages. But a civilised society should not tolerate sexism just because it’s been around for ages.

    rod,

    The ultimate disrespect one can pay to an historical figure is to not tell the whole truth, to build up myths that make us feel better, to leave out things that provoke negative feelings. I am not interested in a bedtime fairytale about Feynman; I am after the real man, warts and all. As for the unfairness of judging him by today’s standards, I don’t go in for that moral relativist bullshit. The hunter-gathers who practice(d) infanticide and child abuse as normative behaviours can only be judged as psychopaths and psychotics, and I’m eternally grateful that this sort of culture has been all but wiped out with the rise of agriculture followed by industrialism.

  • rod

    @ Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Feynman should be remembered by his great contributions, not by his so-called “flaws” (note sarcasm) because:

    – he’s no longer among us. He can’t defend himself. He can’t stand up and respond to these accusations. To taint the memory of a deceased person who contributed so much to mankind is disgusting.

    -he was a scientist. He did great Science. That was his mission. He never wanted to become a role-model in terms of political correctness, nor did he ever aspire to be part of the moral authority.

    EVEN if he was sexist, he was just sexist. So what? He did not work for the Nazis like Planck and Heisenberg did. Von Neumann was famous for being sexist too. So what? Einstein was an absent father, and a serial philanderer. So what? Oppenheimer was a bit of a sex maniac and even hit on his friends’ wives. So what? They were scientists. Great ones. They never wanted to become the guardians of decency and morality.

    Are we going to become slaves of political correctness now?

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    We may be confident that all the stone casters are themselves free from flaw, so they need not our permission to flail away at Feynman or whomever.

    The evil men do lives after them,
    the good is oft interred with their bones.
    So let it be with Feynman.

  • Jennifer W.

    Feynman was a giant ass regarding women. You don’t get a free pass just because you die. We’re all going to die, and if we become great scientists or politicians we’ll all be held accountable for everything we do and are. Not just the pretty bits.

    Different people emphasize different things – some his science, some his barbaric views on women, some both.

    I can’t tell someone else what to attend to, what to ignore, in a great scientist, living or dead. Whatever resonates with them is their business.

    Feynman doesn’t need defenders. I imagine he might be mortified to know that he was to be treated as a god through his death – nevermore a controversial figure.

    I adore his lectures, there is no one (to my mind) that thinks more cleanly than he did about physics. If there is a concept that is not explained properly – has been handwaved over by my books and/or teachers – I go to Feynman. Any catch or any way a clever student can find to break the physics rule under investigation – he will have thought of it and explained it. Because he did all his science from the bottom up, knowing the very basic principles and building from there.

  • Jennifer W.

    p.s. also, may I suggest a heaping dose of Margaret Mead, or any cultural anthropologist worth their salt, as far as sexism being an inherent part of our humanity? Unless you doubt the humanity of far-flung peoples, be prepared for a shift in your thinking.

    And when I say heaping, I mean it – read a lot of her work, and you’ll see all kinds of versions of sexism and also, amazingly, some cultures exhibit a shocking lack of such.

  • Tom Snyder

    @ rod (#13)

    To say that Planck worked for the Nazis suggests that Planck was a Nazis sympathizer. For perspective please see

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/bpplan.html

    or

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Planck

  • rod

    This is ludicrous.

    Just because Feynman asked a few times for some women to get him a bowl of soup, it’s TOTALLY right to call him a “sexist pig” and a “giant ass”. The man is dead, he can’t defend himself, and people feel entitled to disrespect him like this. Of course, the people criticizing him here FOR SURE got to know Feynman in person, so they’re DEFINITELY not judging someone they never met based on urban legends.

    Feynman was not particularly nice on some grad students either. But these were mostly men, so it’s OK. We all know that women are so emotionally vulnerable that we need this idiotic PC campaign to prevent them from running away from this cruel man’s world.

    It is sad that people who are supposed to be educated behave in such a despicable manner. Feynman did not run a concentration camp. He did not ordered the atom bombs to be launched. He just asked some woman to get him soup. Of course, he’s a “sexist pig” and a “giant ass” for that. Of course…

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    Jennifer W.,

    It’s obvious that the status of women varies greatly from culture to culture, but that’s not really the point. the point is differentiation of societal roles, or division of labor, by sex. It’s been a few years since I studied much cultural anthropology, but I recall no examples of pre-modern societies that didn’t differentiate societal roles by sex. I would be interested in hearing of any examples, but I doubt if they are common if they exist at all.

    I don’t know of any experienced and observant parent who hasen’t noted that boys and girls differ greatly (on average) in their interests and behaviors from the earliest ages. That those differences have a biological substrate is well documented, and from the standpoint of evolutionary biology, it would be astounding if they didn’t. None of these things excuse discrimination on the basis of sex anymore than the widespread prevalence of murder in primitive societies excuses murder in ours – but they do explain it.

  • http://Capitalistimperialistpig.blogspot.com capitalistimperialistpig

    Jennifer W,

    One more thing: You say Because he did all his science from the bottom up, knowing the very basic principles and building from there.

    Feynman took the same attitude toward human relations, always eager to investigate any idea from the beginning. You might recall that Feynman once wrote an article entitled something like “Feynman Sexist Pig,” not to mention another with a title something like “You just ask them.” Contemptuous of cant of every sort, he would not have been likely to have failed to investigate the pompous pillars of PC.

    I like the idea that he was testing all these modern women, to see how many if any of them had the courage of their alleged principles. Of course he might just have wanted the soup, but I somehow suspect that the slightly ostentatious feminism of the scientist who inherited his desk would have proved an irresistable target to him.

  • http://weblog.themel.com/ Thomas Themel

    rod,

    I suggest you read a Feynman biography. The “sexist pig”, “giant ass towards women” monikers do not stem from soup fetching incidents.

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    CIP said “The evil men do lives after them,
    the good is oft interred with their bones.”

    Yeah, that’s exactly what I say when people say rude things about Pol Pot. I mean the guy’s dead, how bad can he have been?

    I assume that people think that it’s important to praise dead people for a reason — presumably one wants young people to regard them as role models. So I fail to see why good things about them are more important than bad things.

    Feynman is a particularly singular example because he and his groupies tried/try to associate his intense obnoxiousness with being a good scientist. You know, intolerant of pomposity, blah blah blah. And there are a lot of misguided young people who lap that up — the prize exhibit here being Tom O’Bulls, who of course loves Feynman and frequently celebrates him over at his blog, Ferment Each Reefer.

    Short version: the bad stuff is as relevant as the good.

  • Anonymous

    I think the problem we all run into is when we start blurring the line between admiring a person who gave us many a contribution and hero worship.

    For example: I very much admire the work that Franklin D. Roosevelt did during his presidency. However, it’s rather unforgivable in my eyes that he also turned back a ship full of Jews in the early stages of World War 2, even though he surely knew what was to become of them if they were forced to return to Europe. Does that discolor my impression of the New Deal? Not really. Does that make me think lesser of him as a person? Somewhat, but I try not to think about it, as applying the standards of today to a person of yesteryear is plain unfair. The nice thing about the past is that you can admire the best of it without taking that entire era wholesale.

    I imagine 200 years from now every meat-eater here will be regarded as vicious monsters with no regard for animal life.

    Likewise, with Feynman I try to take the best of him: his love of physics and his love of teaching physics. But, I realize the man had many (ok, many many many) faults that I don’t endorse either. I don’t think the two ideas are mutually exclusive.

    Was he a sexist pig? Probably, but at the same time, I’m pretty sure a good majority of male Americans that grew up in his day and age were. Does that make it right? Absolutely not. But it is what it is.

    I do see a problem with some physicists that I have to come to know who completely venerate Richard Feynman, and there is something definitely wrong with that, especially when they emulate Feynman’s jerkiness. I guess this is all by way of saying, Hero Worship is bad. It’s maddening sometimes to see people who do not realize that there is a difference between admiring the works of a person and venerating said person.

  • ike

    I’ll second Rob. This article was in very poor taste. Why don’t you also attack him for not opposing the racist policies of his day? Why wasn’t Feynmann out leading civil rights marches in the Old South, for example? Isn’t that a great failure on his part?

    How about Feynman’s honest and scrupulous investigation of the Challenger disaster? How about the fact that he was tailed and spied on by the U.S. government because of his rather mild opposition to nuclear warfare? And then you have your Feynmann diagrams.

    Really, the main issue in academics these days is not gender inequality, but rather the wholesale corporate invasion of the universities under the guise of Bayh-Dole patent & licensing laws. That is really the key discriminatory issue in academics these days – male or female is pretty irrelevant, but if you publicly oppose the corporate agenda (outsourcing their R&D departments to the taxpayer-funded public sector, while retaining control of all patents under Bayh-Dole rules), then you will never find a job.

    Gender is a safe topic for a young professor to discuss – but Bayh-Dole is not, unless you want to make enemies of the entire upper administration at your school. Oh, it used to be a big deal – Feynman’s classes at Caltech were uniformly white and male when he was recording the Feynman lectures.

    Why didn’t Feynman challenge this obviously racist and sexist behavior? Why didn’t he single-handedly flip Caltech’s policy around, and demand that minorites and women be allowed to attend his courses? What a disappointment, right? Why didn’t Feynman do the right thing? Why didn’t every single professor in the U.S. do they right thing?

    It’s called competition. Fact is, a lot of those old white professors in the 1960s got their positions via clubbiness more than via real skill – and if you let women and minorities in, you quickly find that good researchers come in all colors and sexes. However, today the new clubbiness is not based on race or gender – it is based on agreement with Bayh-Dole principles and patent & profit greed.

    Really, that is the litmus test for new professors in academia today. Pointing to the flaws in Bayh-Dole is a good way to not get hired, isn’t it?

    So, was every single person at Caltech in the early 1960s a racist, sexist pig? Somehow, that just doesn’t seem like a very well-thought out claim.

  • http://www.pieter-kok.staff.shef.ac.uk Pieter Kok

    It is important not to confuse a sexist culture with a traditionally male culture where women feel less at home. In the former case a negative attitude towards women is actively maintained, while in the latter culture the negativism is completely unintentional. Based on a few conversations with female colleagues, I believe it is traditional male culture rather than sexism that is rife in physics.

  • Tom Weidig

    Why do we need an equal amount of women in science?

    Does this automatically imply that we should work toward equal numbers of men in nursing, teaching, and human resources?

    And to reach the equal numbers goal, we would need to force the men to become nurses, kindergarten teachers, and human resources, areas they are not interested in. Would be then not expect the quality of nursing, and teaching to go down?

    If fewer women scientists mean lower quality research, then why did the supply and demand dynamics not balance the ratios? I.e. a less sexist department should do better science and attract more funding and brains, and a sexist department would die out?

    How come women live longer even though they apparently face discrimination unlike men?

  • robert

    Reactions to Feynman, his physics and his peccadilloes – a shibboleth that picks out the PC practitioners, the macho-nerds and those that could not give a f**k about the whole thing. And as one who sits firmly in this final category, I’ve nothing much to add, save that the bitching and revisiting well trodden ground – yes we know that he was pretty damn smart and a complete sh*t, though he wasn’t a paedophile like Schroedinger or quite as reprehensible as the pre-breakdown John Nash – makes everyone involved look partisan, irrational and slightly pathetic. Come on guys (and gals): get over it. Give it a rest.

  • C

    “Does this automatically imply that we should work toward equal numbers of men in nursing, teaching, and human resources?”

    Actually, yes. Sexism works both ways – by discouraging either sex from participating in activities that are not traditionally encouraged according to gender roles. Men can be as nurturing and empathetic as women, and women can be as assertive and mentally focused as men. The more we strip gender roles down and encourage each other, the more our culture will benefit. In my opinion, of course.

  • Ducking-for-cover

    If Feynman was as successful with women as the myths say, he probably understood women better than armchair feminists and anti-feminists. :)

    With that understanding, he did two things:

    1. Explained quantum mechanics to her passionately.

    2. Gave her things to do for him.

    Many people here think that the latter was a symbol of male-chauvinism. I personally think both have nothing to do with Feynman’s policy statements towards women. He did them because it worked for him! Explaining quantum mechanics with passion is easily enough to attract a woman. People who say otherwise just don’t have enough passion ;) . But even with a passionate guy, women want HIM to take the blame for what SHE wants. See how Feynman has given her the perfect excuse? He is the bully and she is only going with “it” because, well, ..”… he explained quantum mechanics to me!” :)

    This is a bit tongue-in-cheek of course, but there is truth there.

    But really, how many guys actually have the BALLS to order a woman around? Not wielding power and not having power are not the same at all. In fact, the point is not so much the ordering around, but the balls. And the reason why the woman in question here is defending Feynman (why is no one else paying attention to that?), is because she knew he had them!

    There is a world to be said here, and it is nowhere near as male-chauvinistic ultimately as it sounds in the beginning, but I suspect I am going to get lynched by the ivory tower intellectuals of Western culture. :) … Btw, this is not an attack against Western culture in GENERAL – please note that if you decide to nit pick on this point. Also please keep in mind the possibility that I am not necessarily some religious nut from the middle east. I just happen to think that men should be allowed to like women, and should not be forced to apologize for doing something about it. Kids back home where I grew up will recognize whats going on here in the Feynman story – but some educated intellectuals just can’t seem to get enough of the righteous indignation. Pick your fights more wisely, people!!! Sometimes its just about being a li’l chilled back. I realize that knowing when to be chill and when to take up your swords and run screaming into the fight is hard, but this one certainly flies below my radar.

    Btw, what exactly was the relevance of the Feynman story to the second part of the post? which incidentally, I agree, is a real issue that might be keeping women out of science?

  • Tom Weidig

    >> Actually, yes. Sexism works both ways – by discouraging either sex from participating in activities that are not traditionally encouraged according to gender roles. Men can be as nurturing and empathetic as women, and women can be as assertive and mentally focused as men. The more we strip gender roles down and encourage each other, the more our culture will benefit. In my opinion, of course.

    But I am not INTERESTED IN and not TURNED ON BY typical female jobs like nursing or teaching small kids, and most men that I know are not INTERESTED either. Most of us would be bored to death. Why do we have to force people to do things they are not interested in in the first place?

    >> Men can be as nurturing and empathetic as women, and women can be as assertive and mentally focused as men.

    Potential ability does not imply interest. I am good at certain things, but I hate them, and so I do not WANT to do them.

    I can understand that we make sure that people who ARE interested in a job have all equal opportunity, but to make people be interested in or force them is non-democratic and totalitarian.

    And again, I cannot see how quality goes up if you don’t do things you are interested in?

  • Jack M.

    Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize – so, Sean, where’s yours???

    I find it mildly amusing nowadays lesser scientists have discovered a new way to vent their angst. They simply attack great scientists for their lack of political correctness! Never mind the PC mindset ( or lack of mind ) is a fairly recent pseudo-intellectual construct, NO, we must judge all history by our own standards and prove our own moral superiority!!

    Blathering about “encouragement” is further nonsense – there is no inherent “right” to be a scientist. People voluntarily choose to enter the field and, if they can’t take the stress, may voluntarily leave. I’m reminded of a story about Hemingway. Someone once asked what was his advice to young writers, to which he replied that he always tried to discourage them – the good ones were the ones who didn’t listen!

    One of the responders wrote ” If you point to the corruption involved in the corporate takeover of U.S. universities, you’ll just find yourself barred from getting a job in academics”

    There is no “corporate takeover” of universities, that baloney !!

    Actually, the truth is if you refuse to fully embrace the PC bull***t being promulgated by leftist professors, you’ll be denied tenure – if you even get hired at all. The TRUTH is American universities are no longer marketplaces of ideas – if you don’t worship at the altars of “diversity” and “sensitivity” then your ideas aren’t welcome. That’s why pathetic “little men” on campus can now freely attack great figures ranging from Columbus to Feynman.

  • Jack M.

    one more thing – when I was in high school, my physical science teacher once remarked that there are 3 types of people in the world – those who respond to the carrot, those who respond to the stick, and those who are self-motivated. Then he asked ” Which one are you?” Well, I got the message !!

    If you really want to seek in a career in science ( which is a privilege NOT a right!) you must be self-motivated and you must do science because you love doing science. Great science is done by those who have a passion for science!! It is NOT done by those who are pushed into the field just to meet some gender/race/orientation quota system or who have to be coaxed (excuse me, “encouraged”) constantly. Period, end of story!

  • http://www.builtonfacts.com Matt

    Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain on May 31st, 2008 at 6:59 am

    Short version: the bad stuff is as relevant as the good.

    Even if so, generic chauvinism is a pretty mundane bad thing compared to the good of truly his epic scale contributions to physics and the public view of science. It’s on the order of rejecting a lottery prize because you have to pay taxes on it.

    Why not think of it as one more thing to learn from him, except this time as an example of something not to do?

  • jiminy

    What is this about rejecting his contributions because he was sometimes sexist? Isn’t that basically the opposite of what the post said?

    I like “people without Nobel prizes are not permitted to criticize people with Nobel prizes.” That’s the old Feynman spirit!

    This topic sure does bring out the stupid.

  • C

    “But I am not INTERESTED IN and not TURNED ON BY typical female jobs like nursing or teaching small kids, and most men that I know are not INTERESTED either. Most of us would be bored to death. Why do we have to force people to do things they are not interested in in the first place?”

    So don’t do them! It’s not about forcing people to do what they don’t want to do. It’s about encouraging people who do want to do things to do them, and ensuring that there aren’t social/cultural obstacles to developing interest in the first place.

    Feel free to run about and do your thing! My point is that we all should be given equal opportunity to do that.

    PS, I’m a woman, and I’m not interested in or “turned on by” nursing or teaching small kids, either. Go figure.

  • Lord

    if someone leaves the field, it must have been because they weren’t good enough

    Or the field wasn’t good enough for them. Confusing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome is never a good thing.

  • anonymous woman scientist

    #4 – Yeah, I was really hoping Sean could back himself up on this, preferably with something that bespoke some integrity of thought. (sigh)

    Frankly, the only time I felt ‘discouraged’ because I was a woman was when my female undergrad advisor (with the curious preference for male research assistants and grad students) wouldn’t hire me as a research assistant despite the fact that I was A/B core gradepoint and had just completed a successful summer internship with a major company. She said the reason was because I was a ‘flake’. (That’s DR. Flake now, honey! Feed that to your bacteria!)

  • big vlad

    regarding comment 36: that is the sort of attitude that gives political correctness a bad name, ie blaming any professional failure on a perceived cultural bias. If someone thinks you’re a flake it’s not necessarily sexism!

    In my experience (in hep phenomenology) there is, at least these days, no bias against women and no macho culture. Of course academia is very competitive, but that’s not the same as macho. The stats say that there is a high dropout rate among women. Well, it’s the same in all professions. It’s still the case that becoming a mother is much more damaging to one’s career than becoming a father (there are many reasons for this).

    Another interesting aspect of this is http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/camilla_cavendish/article3889912.ece .

  • recyclingarguments

    #27. “But I am not INTERESTED IN and not TURNED ON BY typical female jobs like nursing or teaching small kids, and most men that I know are not INTERESTED either. Most of us would be bored to death. Why do we have to force people to do things they are not interested in in the first place?”

    1. You assume women do those jobs out of “interest”?

    Think again! Some women truly aspire to those jobs, but many have been turned off of more lucrative, exciting, or otherwise “interesting” careers by male (and sadly, sometimes female) hostility, if not outright discrimination.

    2. No one except you mentioned “force”.

    Come on, that’s sheer hysteria. The key here is to level the playing field so that everyone has an “equal opportunity” – there’s a reason that phrase is used, even if it’s rarely implemented well. It’s not about forcing people to do anything, it’s about allowing them to explore interests that they may have but aren’t currently culturally permissible. Maybe you would never be a stay-at-home dad or first-grade teacher, but some men would if it were socially acceptable. It sounds like your assertion (“most men…”) comes from asking other men, “You would never do a boring fairy job like THAT, would you?” Yeah, what are they supposed to say?

    #26. “Based on a few conversations with female colleagues, I believe it is traditional male culture rather than sexism that is rife in physics.”

    That sounds like a pretty limited sample technique. You might want to read some of the articles detailing the issues in physics culture. It’s a well known problem.

    #38. “Frankly, the only time I felt ‘discouraged’ because I was a woman was when my female undergrad advisor (with the curious preference for male research assistants and grad students) wouldn’t hire me”

    Yep, sexism can come from both sexes. There’s a lot of internalized misogyny in science. I know I’m guilty of it at times, as are many women who’ve had to learn to behave like “one of the boys” to succeed. It becomes ingrained.

  • eric gisse

    feynman continues to entertain if only for the fact he can still stir the pot even though hes dead and buried.

  • Thomas Larsson

    Via Swans on Tea, a great article about Richard Feynman’s days in the 1980’s working for Thinking Machines on their groundbreaking massively-parallel computers.

    It might be worth pointing out that TMI went bankrupt in 1994. Evidently their groundbreaking computers weren’t good enough for the real world.

  • Haelfix

    Today, I asked my female physicist colleague to go make me a cup of coffee in honor of this post and we both laughed about it.

    To Richard!

  • workworkwork

    The issue of Feynman has been hashed and rehashed. He was an excellent scientist, but a deeply flawed human being, and certainly more sexist than the average man at the time (perhaps not more sexist than the average man-in-a-position-of-power, though).

    I wish to respond to this, by Jack M.:

    I’m reminded of a story about Hemingway. Someone once asked what was his advice to young writers, to which he replied that he always tried to discourage them – the good ones were the ones who didn’t listen!

    There are a lot of intelligent, creative mentors who operate on this principle. There is a problem with this, however.

    That is this: women (and, at times, other minority groups) on average tend to rate their own abilities as being lower than they actually are, whereas men tend on average to rate their own abilities as being as high as, or higher than, they actually are. This is well documented.

    If a very good writer or scientist discourages younger colleagues from attempting to continue in the field, the discouragement is going to disproportionately affect females regardless of the ability of the younger colleagues.

    Indeed, we do see this — men of lesser ability are likelier to continue in various fields than women of higher ability, even after controlling for factors like child-rearing.

    There are those who have argued that the female tendency to being more easily discouraged, and to self-underrating of abilities, indicates that most women are not suited to any intellectual pursuits requiring a bit of egotism. (I don’t think anyone would deny that most successful academics have at least a dash of egotism, and a tendency to believe themselves in the right even when others insist that they are wrong.)

    Maybe this is true. But by allowing this aspect of Western intellectual culture to persist, we are removing some excellent people from the pool of potential contributors, many females, but males as well. We must reconsider whether we feel that egotism and self-conceit really should be requisites for a young academic who has otherwise strong potential to do good work.

    The free-market analogy does not work here because it assumes that the market makes decisions for best benefit in a rational manner. It doesn’t. Humans are not really rational beings, and we very, very often make decisions that are counter to our best interests thanks to our own biases, quirks, and superstitions.

    This may change in the future in the sciences, as the sciences have become much more collaborative in the last twenty years or so. We now do much of our best work not by individually locking horns with antagonistic competitors, and thumping our chests, but by working together.

    May the trend continue, because I think it can only be for the better that we do not waste precious time trying to knock one another down.

  • agm

    So, Sean, I guess it’s that time of the year again? Haven’t you done posts with the meat of this several times before?

    I guess that’s reasonable, what with very little having changed and this being your blog :)

  • a

    Looks like cosmicvariance got hacked…perhaps you need to update wordpress.

  • http://scilearn.blogspot.com Freiddie

    Okay, so what happened a few hours ago on Cosmic Variance?

  • http://girldetective.wordpress.com The Girl Detective

    It is important not to confuse a sexist culture with a traditionally male culture where women feel less at home. In the former case a negative attitude towards women is actively maintained, while in the latter culture the negativism is completely unintentional. Based on a few conversations with female colleagues, I believe it is traditional male culture rather than sexism that is rife in physics.

    Peter, a “traditionally male culture where women feel less at home” IS a sexist culture. Sexism doesn’t need to be negative or intentional; it can be unconscious, ingrained, or even well-intentioned.

    But I am not INTERESTED IN and not TURNED ON BY typical female jobs like nursing or teaching small kids, and most men that I know are not INTERESTED either. Most of us would be bored to death. Why do we have to force people to do things they are not interested in in the first place?

    Tom – Funny, I know and have met plenty of men who are interested in “typical female jobs.” Did I just happen to befriend the few exceptions to a hard and fast rule, or is it possible that different men have different interests?

    I find it really depressing that attempts to identify and analyze occurrences of sexism (and racism, etc.) are always so quickly dismissed as political correctness. We’re talking about actual lives and careers here, not offending delicate sensibilities. Does your right to treat women however you want trump my right to do my job without being denigrated and dismissed?

  • Petr

    As for the unfairness of judging him by today’s standards, I don’t go in for that moral relativist bullshit. The hunter-gathers who practice(d) infanticide and child abuse as normative behaviours can only be judged as psychopaths and psychotics…

    … which, perhaps, they were. Recondite cavemen aside, I’m wondering why your moral relativism trumps mine?

    A simple thought experiment: do you think that you, had you grown up in early 20-th century America, would have been in a position to criticize Feynman (who would then have been your contemporary)? Think of all the borderline behaviour your present contemporaries engage in… in a generation or two they may be seen as swinish pigs from a bygone era. What would you say if someone from the future popped into your life judging you for not standing up to them…?

  • Kordan the Merciless

    It’s funny how women always claim they want a nice,
    sensitive, and understanding guy – but the younger
    ones especially (such as in college) almost always
    seem to go for the big macho jerks.

    Then they whine and cry about how cruel and insensitive
    all men are – go figure.

    Personally I think both genders are two separate
    species that happen to have the genetic ability to
    mate.

  • teadrinker

    Even terrorists are having gender issues these days!

    Female fundamentalist Muslims are fighting for the
    right to be suicide bombers, too, just like their
    male counterparts:

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/05/31/world/main4142514.shtml?source=RSSattr=HOME_4142514

    Sadly, they only get half as many virgins as the men
    do upon a successful detonation – even the afterlife is
    just so unfair.

    The whole species is just plain warped!

  • Changcho

    To Haelfix (#43): but the question, of course, is: did she make you that cup of coffee for you?

    To teadrinker (#51): yeah, I saw that, and I agree; that is so warped.

    Give this Feynman thing a rest: the man was a genius, let it be. Isn’t there a Motorhead song that says something like ‘don’t expect the best if you can’t take the least’?

  • anonfemalesci

    There are approximately two types of sexism among older males. There are the men who can still treat you with respect (most) of the time, who can engage with you on science, who can be interested to talk and to hear what you have to say. And, they occasionally say the ‘wrong’ thing or ask for coffee because of a generational issue about perception and roles. This is different from the older, creepy, leering or hating men, who never really engage with women or consider them equals, and with whom one gets the sense that there is a type of hatred or chip on the shoulder about women. I am more willing to excuse the former than the latter. The problem is the men of all ages who really do actually hate women on some level, usually due to personal issues with relationships, sex, female relatives, and so on. There is the sexism that comes from societal conditioning and then there is the sexism that comes from hating women, and they may overlap but there is a difference I have sensed there.

  • Antonio

    (delurking)

    Kordan said:
    “It’s funny how women always claim they want a nice,
    sensitive, and understanding guy – but the younger
    ones especially (such as in college) almost always
    seem to go for the big macho jerks.

    Then they whine and cry about how cruel and insensitive
    all men are – go figure.”

    Of course no one can ever rely solely on an individuals spoken claims; actions speak louder then words. I can dig the study up for you if you’d like, but I remember a psychology paper that tested womens actual preferences (using speed dating, it’s weak but it’s the best we have) and sure enough it supported the nice guy stereotype! The women ended up liking more men that scored low on agreeableness, which I think would roughly correlate with niceness.

  • teadrinker

    Antonio, the answer to why people pick people who have
    power and looks over personality and intelligence (read niceness) is simple: We are still just monkeys with car keys.

  • Adrian Burd

    Well, as someone has already mentioned, Feynman obviously has the ability to stir the pot from beyond the grave. And to be honest, I’m quite astonished at the quality of the comments written here. People are people!

    #53, Your post is equally valid if one were to interchange the words “men” and “women” throughout. I would also suggest that neither is less common than the other.

    #50, as people grow older, their outlook on life changes as do the qualities they look for in a partner

    Having worked at two large, but good, public universities I’ve seen more than my share of talented young women diverted from working in the science by…..other women (this is apparently a large issue in mathematics and was pointed out to me by a woman mathematics professor who was despairing of the situation).

    There are also talented individuals of both sexes that go onto great careers with or without hostile/encouraging environments/mentors etc.

    As for Feynman, he can no longer defend himself or give a rationale for his behavior. My suspicion, on having read a large chunk of his writings, is that he was continually pushing the limits to see what he could get away with, or as others have pointed out here, to see exactly how cherished these beliefs of others really are – but maybe I’ve been watching too much House and Boston Legal.

    So, I would respectfully suggest that people treat others with respect (if it is deserved) and just grow up!

  • http://www.feynmanlectures.info Michael A. Gottlieb

    All you people making strong pronouncements about Feynman’s character make me laugh; you impress me as a bunch of gossips.

    How many of you knew Feynman? How many of you know someone that knew Feynman? I would wager that none of the outspoken posters in this thread have any real experience of what Feynman was like – you can’t tell what a person is like from reading books and articles.

    Feynman was a human being, OK? Albeit a very smart one. He was not always perfect in all respects. Are any of us?

    [As for The Feynman Lectures on Physics (FLP), also mentioned above, please don’t forget that Feynman was not their sole author – Matthew Sands and Robert Leighton were also authors of FLP. In fact the whole project was Matt Sands’ idea, and Feynman did none of the actual writing. If you ever listen to the (commercially available) tapes of the lectures on which the books are based and compare them to what is written in the books you will see that they are by _no means_ merely a transcription. Feynman was incredibly brilliant but sometimes not completely clear – sometimes far from clear – as is the case for most people speaking extemporaneously. Leighton’s and Sands’ great contribution to FLP was to “translate ‘Feynmanese’ into English” (as Leighton jokingly puts it in his Oral History at the Caltech Archives), and they did a great job, though they are rarely recognized for it.]

    Michael A. Gottlieb
    Physics Department
    California Institute of Technology

  • anonymous liberal anti-feminist

    Simple Truth that any honest observer will have to admit: Feminist professors in humanities departments m today make far more sexist comments and show far more hatred towards men – officially and in print – than Feynman ever did towards women.

    Today a majority of medical students, law students and mba students are women; in addition to the humanities. But in the ‘sexist past’ all these subjects were equally dominated by men. You apparently claim that scientists are more sexist than doctors and lawyers – but is it not reasoable to consider other possibilities: men are simply more interested in science, or more realistically biases against men and boys (that’s right) in other areas with artificial entry barriers makes them go into other areas.

    Incidentally MBA’s, medical doctors, and lawyers all earn far more money than scientists – maybe that is the reason for the lack of women in science!

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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] cosmicvariance.com .

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »