Sunday, July 13, 2014

Richard Feynman... R.I.P.


An entry completely off the beaten track... those who don't care about or like Richard Feynman need not read. This just goes out to his fans at a time he is drawing some heat on the internet:
[...and I'm adding bits to this post as time goes on, and different issues arise around the Web.]

I've never had many heroes in life; don't even much like the term "heroes," as I tend to see people with all their warts and weaknesses on display. But there are some folks I hold in high esteem. In politics and public life, Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown, Bill Bradley, Morris Dees, and historically, Abraham Lincoln and Clarence Darrow, perhaps Bobby Kennedy if he had lived. I throw the names out, not to name-drop, but just to establish my leanings [I offer a few female alternatives here]. In science, no living heroes. I liked Martin Gardner of course, but probably the closest to a hero, and in a league all his own, was Richard Feynman. I fancied Feynman long before the internet came along (and long before he died), for all the reasons that don't need spelling out to his legion of admirers. As a scientist, a teacher, a thinker, an inspirer, an inquirer, and just a character, he was perhaps unsurpassed in the 20th century.

But, he had his human flaws… he wrote about them; his biographers wrote about them; they were never hidden, the way most of us keep our unsavory skeletons behind closet doors. They were part of who he was, especially as a younger man. And for some reason, now all these years later, they've become grist for some on the internet; pertaining to what we view today as rampant "sexism."
Feynman matured formatively in the 1930s/40s/50s largely in an all-boys network (MIT, Caltech, the Manhattan Project). He was smart, attractive, clever. Did every male in those networks have Feynman's sexist predilections… perhaps not, but I suspect all those with Feynman's charm, intelligence, and hormones did! (admittedly, just my guess)

I'll do a little of what some Webbites like to call "mansplaining":
When new mothers suffer post-partum depression and behave badly around their new-borns, we don't call them lousy, incompetent, dangerous moms (though we could) and recommend they give their babies up for adoption… we try to treat the hormonal/biochemical imbalances they are falling prey to. For that matter, we no longer castigate women suffering major PMS mood disorders and send them off to asylums either, but again try to treat the underlying conditions. Males too, especially young males, and especially young males surrounded by other young males for lengthy periods, are hugely subject to hormonal/biochemical drives in addition to peer pressures. (Of course we are all subject to our biochemistry and neurology throughout our lives.) IF that was the case for Richard Feynman 60-70 years ago, and he lacked certain impulse controls that are expected today, so be it; it does little good to go back and rake over those ashes now. Move on. Nothing more or new to see here. This is all old, old news.

...More old news: My father murdered people 70+ years ago. As a young, wide-eyed, idealistic American he was shipped off to Europe in WWII and ordered to kill Nazis (to 'save the world for democracy') -- don't argue with me about the definition of "murder;" he deliberately killed people, under orders. He came home from that experience a pacifist, having seen atrocities he couldn't fathom… atrocities committed, not just by the Nazis, but repeatedly by American soldiers. I can assure you if your dads fought in WWII or Korea or Viet Nam they saw or participated in atrocities as well, even if they won't speak of it out loud... because, you know, 'War is Hell,' and believe-it-or-not, well, Americans just aren't always choirboys and saints.  But we don't judge our fathers' lives by what they did in such a context, no matter how wretched it might've been. We look over their entire lives, motives, intents, behaviors, contributions, values, and weigh it altogether.

If we were going to judge people of the past by today's standards, then of course all the Founding Fathers fail, just as most of us will fail the ethical standards in place 100 years from now (hell, as far as I'm concerned we are already ethical failures, in addition to being hypocrites and egotists -- a religious person would say we are all sinners, I simply say we are all 'human,' occasionally doing the best we can, usually not). How many of us would wish our entire personal lives opened up to public scrutiny and judgment. The "purists" out there want something that doesn't exist: a scientist with nothing objectionable in his past. I'm quickly judgmental myself of politicians and businessmen (they hold sway over my life and my country, moreso than do scientists), so I understand how easy being judgmental is... but I also know it comes off as sanctimonious and better avoided. And even in the case of politicians/businessmen, I'm critical of their professional lives; I hardly even want to know their personal lives.

Attacking Feynman to improve the lot for women today, is like attacking George Wallace to improve race relations today; it serves little purpose or impact. Face today's culprits in the here-and-now and deal with them. Don't squander time going after ghosts. Or, another analogy, from the corporate world: German transnational company Bayer AG, famous for cropsciences and healthcare, had Nazi associations back in the day (I believe Volkswagen did too???); should we dredge up that history of Bayer and judge them accordingly now? Or is it more appropriate to take companies to task today for what they are actually doing today? (Yo, Comcast...)

Anyway, I'll stack up Richard Feynman's contributions to science, society, education, and humanity, and even stack up his OVERALL values system, against those of his new-born, petulant, self-absorbed internet critics, anytime and have no doubt he'll leave them in his dust. It hurts to see his name dragged through the mud at this late date, especially by people who may never leave any similar lasting mark on the world.

It's a shame that 26 years after his death I feel a need to say Richard Feynman, R.I.P…  Rest... In... Peace.  But we live in a day when it is hubris-driven sport to point fingers at the famous, the vaunted, the iconic, and bring them down to size (and it's especially easy to impugn the deceased). Except Feynman, more than most, already understood his size in the Universe; I hope some other folks eventually understand theirs.

ADDENDUM: Of course there are really too many to even choose from, but I'm adding one of my favorite clips of Feynman:

[I expect I may be adding more to this post as time goes on. In the meantime I recommend people read the above volume of his letters, edited by his daughter, and reviewed by Freeman Dyson here. And daughter Michelle tells a bit about the book project here.]

A few general remarks about some of the stories (which I won't repeat) that have landed Feynman in hot water. First, I'd be cautious about anecdotes from Feynman's own two popular autobiographical volumes ("Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"). These books were ghostwritten from Feynman narratives, and ghostwriters often embellish, or 'punch up,' stories for marketing purposes. Not all details there are corroborated. Also, Feynman lived through the 'sexual revolution' or 'sexual liberation' of the 60s/70s, a time when it wasn't uncommon for many to broadcast their sexual exploits and freedom… just possibly someone in a field perceived as nerdy as physics might feel compelled to burnish their reputation or prowess a bit with details that today seem appalling.  NO, I'm not making excuses, but am acknowledging that I don't know the precise accuracy of all the tales told around and by Feynman… and, neither do you. For that matter most of us don't even know much about what went on behind the closed doors of our own parents' rooms… that we might find very perturbing in today's 'enlightened' times.

Several of the incidents focused on by critics relate to Feynman's second wife and divorce, a messy affair. The bitterness of the divorce alone mean the exact details as reported must be taken with caution. But moreover, in those days "incompatibility" was not a basis in most states for dissolving a marriage. If one couldn't show "abandonment" (having had no contact with the spouse for 1-2 years) the only alternative to opt for was some form of 'abuse' as grounds for divorce, which again meant that stories were embellished, or even concocted, just to get the legal process moving along.

None of this is to absolve Richard Feynman of his worst behaviors, but the thing is, I don't absolve any of us of our choices throughout the day (in food, clothing, material goods, transportation, entertainment, jobs, words, etc.), that send damaging ripples out into the world. All actions (...and even INactions) have consequences, and we render harm to other people, animals, and the planet, even if unintentionally. All of us (and our parents/grandparents) are vulnerable to character assassination by selective reporting of bits of our lives. I can't stand idly by and watch that happen to an individual who contributed SO much, and who, if alive today, would likely be one of the strongest proponents around for women and minorities in science.


The recent Feynman critics label themselves "feminists," but feminism covers a lot of ground… I've always considered myself a feminist, though am tempted now to re-frame myself as a "Feynmanist" (…a little humor, if it's allowed).  I was in college when the first wave of modern feminism emerged, and one of the most memorable bits from those days were the "bra burners" -- gatherings of women to burn their bras, and henceforth go without… an even smaller, more stringent clique of feminists argued for a halt to leg and armpit shaving… because, after all, brassieres and body-shaving were viewed, quite rightly, as elements of male oppression and domination. But how long did that last… and 40+ years later the number and variety of bras, and body parts being shaved(!) are greater than ever (and NO, there are not good health or hygienic reasons for these practices; they are just socially-induced mores, like fashion, make-up, hairstyles, etc.). My point being simply that most so-called feminists actually cave-in to a great many societal, primarily male, pressures/whims.
One last example from those old days: a number of women back then decided they didn't want men opening doors for them… again an act perceived as a patronizing gesture toward the 'weaker' sex. I'd like to think that nowadays, we open or hold doors for one another simply as a polite, respectful gesture (though it's still probably the case that men open doors for women more often than they do for other men). Anyway, I don't mention all these minor examples to trivialize the seriousness of some of Richard Feynman's actions, but only to emphasize that times change, attitudes change, and perceptions vary among different individuals over time.
Granted, there are more important/pressing issues in feminism than body-grooming, clothing accoutrements, and door-opening, but I repeat again: sniping at a dead person, who lived in a different era, over things that happened and can't be changed, just isn't a very productive way to advance feminist issues forward present-day. As the old prayer intones, have 'the wisdom to know the difference between what you can and cannot change,' and I might add, the decency not to attack those who have no chance to respond.
Some critics have said that they respect Feynman's science, but can no longer use him as a choice for "science outreach" -- I beg to differ... for science outreach I want the very best dang scientists around, especially the best communicators, without regard for their personal lives or their political-correctness; I want to learn from the best science available! It's a bit like choosing a brain surgeon: do you want the sweet guy, with the nice bedside manner and pleasant smile, or do you want the sexist jerk with 20 years experience, keen hand/eye coordination, and the best-rated surgical skills around?

And IF you ARE going to apply personal criteria to science outreach, then in fairness, it must be applied across the board -- ALL scientists should have their private lives investigated and judged before they are approached for such outreach. While you're at it you might want to investigate the personal lives of all those labeling themselves feminists… might just be surprised at what you uncover.

I once knew a Unitarian minister who gave a sermon each year on how to recognize a person's true values: he said, pay no attention to the words a person speaks or writes; instead look at how they spend their TIME and their MONEY -- THAT shows their true values. i.e., you can talk all month about women's rights, but if you spend your time and money decorating your body, or enjoying entertainment, or remodeling the house, or vacationing, or upgrading your cellphone, or... or… or... well, that speaks volumes. In short, words are cheap, societal-changing actions are rarer to come by.
And yet, I DON'T want to pooh-pooh the Web and social media too much… a lot of people these days, after meeting monthly expenses, simply don't have the expendable income, to give to causes they believe in; nor do they have the energy, after fulfilling work and family obligations, to spend much active time on those causes. Perhaps sitting down at a keyboard and computer screen, espousing their views is as much as they can muster… but, there IS also something unsettling, almost bullying, about internet posses focusing on single individuals.
I have nothing but respect for the consistent, committed feminists who burn their bras, go unshaven, forego make-up/perfume, spend their time and money on the issues, criticize their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, supervisors, as needed, AND who harshly criticize Richard Feynman… problem is I haven't met any. (On the other hand, I've met a lot of scientists who learned a lot of cool physics via Richard Feynman.)


…and more:

Apologies, that I keep thinking of analogies from the past which I believe instructive…
I grew up at a time that driving home drunk from a party or celebration was almost a 'rite of passage.' If there was a wreck, even a major one, well, it was an 'accident;' and life is full of accidents, full of risks; you know, 'shit happens.' Drunk drivers were slapped on the wrist and sent on their way, back in the day.
Then, 13-year-old Cari Lightner was killed by a drunk driver in California… and her mom Candace Lightner, recognizing the ubiquity of such tragedies, and the pathetically light laws and penalties for such, went on a crusade to change the perception of (and laws around) "drunk driving." She started Mothers Against Drunk Driving and almost single-handedly changed the view of drunk driving in this country from just part of life, to a pernicious, preventable crime. Never underestimate the passion, commitment, perseverence, of a grieving mother; she was probably laughed at in some circles and it took years to get the attention of Congress and every state, but eventually the laws and punishments changed (though she later left MADD in a dispute over how best to continue the campaign).
BUT, and this is my point, while we can be highly critical of anyone today who is caught driving drunk, we CAN'T go back and legitimately criticize as harshly those from the 1950s, 60s, etc. who did the same, at a time when the practice was largely accepted by society. Yeah, your dad or grandpa driving drunk in 1959 gets a free pass; your husband or son today not so much. Again, people must be judged by the perceptions of the times they lived in.

...I wonder a bit how Feynman's critics view the likes of a Steve Jobs… an individual who by all accounts was on occasion a supreme jerk and unpleasant fellow… but who, with a fervent, laser-like focus on design, beauty, excellence, quality, brought more wonder to this world in a few decades than most of us will if we live to be 105. I'd rather have a chance to sit and spend 30 minutes with Jobs, than 3 days with say Bill Gates… perhaps that's my weakness, that I'm drawn to people who, whatever their personal flaws, are driven… passionately... by excellence, and who move science/technology forward in significant ways.... because frankly I see so little excellence out there in science; mostly weak, sloppy, formulaic, routine, mundane, simplistic, even embarrassing efforts. I'm happy living in a world populated with Feynmans and Jobses, and wish there were more of them. Most of us, no matter how well-behaved, are lilliputians by comparison. No, Richard Feynman need not be anyone's hero, but I sure don't know anyone who has more to teach us, all of us, about science and science values than does he. And great teachers (like great scientists) are few-and-far-between.

R.I.P. Robin Williams…

Have several other things jotted down that I might talk about here… but they'll wait. Last night the news came that Robin Williams died at 63, apparently a suicide. His range and body of work was enormous, though I imagined that most still thought of him as a wacky, creative comedian. So I went on Twitter to note my special love for the final scene from "Dead Poets Society," one of his dramatic triumphs. Stupid me! …I was flabbergasted, and heartened, at the deluge of other people who were soon on Twitter apparently moved by that very same movie. The phrases "carpe diem" and "Oh Captain, My Captain" from the film filled Twitter in his honor, and the scene I specifically cited was paid further tribute by 100s of tweeters saying they were "standing on my desk" or simply "stands on desk." So great to know that something that touched you in life, touched 1000s of others across the globe.
Robin was funny and brilliant, talented and charitable, and, according to all who knew him best, a "sweet" man!  Of course, it is natural that immediately upon death such widespread tributes should pour in, as we focus on what such an individual brought positively to our lives. Robin suffered substance-abuse and no doubt had other problems in his relatively-short life. How did he treat his past wives… I don't know. Did he ever affront a woman or tell sexist jokes… I don't recall. But moreover, I DON'T friggin' care! When a person contributes so much to our lives and to the world at large, one doesn't obsess over their weaknesses and flaws and wrangling them down to our own mundane level. I'm not interested in exploring his personal life (nor Jennifer Aniston's or Taylor Swift's for that matter), but maybe if you read the National Inquirer or the tabloids you are. And I'm not much interested in raking over Richard Feynman's personal life either. Robin made me laugh… and cry… and Richard made me think… and wonder. Above all, Mr. Keating and Dr. Feynman were excellent teachers. Again, I can't ask for much more than that.


I've been a feminist for longer than some of Feynman's critics have been alive… long enough to have seen the movement go from being viewed as silly, to taken seriously, to being viewed nervously in some circles as an impediment to the very goals it sought. In recent years some (who are in line with those goals), have been turned off by the tone of various feminist elements. Feminists cover a broad spectrum of views. In her recent address to the U.N. General Assembly Emma Watson noted the negative connotation that feminists must sometimes fight against (that have resulted in 'women against feminism' groups), and this is why I view attacks on Feynman as counterproductive examples of shooting oneself (and one's goals) in the foot. Moreover, Watson notes that gender is a spectrum, not a simple either-or categorization, nor a we-versus-them issue, as sometimes implied.
Below is her speech to the United Nations -- it is ashamed that she had to feel nervous delivering such a speech… of course it is even more ashamed that such a speech is necessary:

We won't all agree on every element of feminism, but hopefully we can start with the snarky nutshell truth of an old bumper sticker and move outward from there: "Feminism is the radical notion that women are people" (and ought be treated as such)


There's been so many 'feminist' fireworks on the Web in the last few months I could write another half-dozen pages here easily... but who wants that ;-)  So I'll skip most of it (...for now at least), and instead just link to a couple of things I've recently directed other folks to:

1)  this old, 17-min. "This American Life" episode (act 2) with Griffin Hansbury that I offer without comment:


2)  a more recent (mid-Dec. 2014) post (which currently has about 600 comments) by computer scientist Scott Aaronson (of "Shtetl-Optimized") about the MIT Walter Lewin case:
...and this discussion all continues in a second Aaronson post, "What I Believe":
...which eventually links to an even longer SlateStarCodex piece by Scott Alexander (over 950 comments):

A LOT of ground covered in these pieces & comments (and I dare say nothing is settled ;-)


Michelle Feynman now has a new volume out on her father, "The Quotable Feynman" (Princeton University Press).  She is interviewed about it here (podcast):

"All evidence indicates that Richard Feynman was the most quotable physicist of all time. This collection is a vivid demonstration of his wit, wisdom, and unquenchable passion for finding things out."  -- physicist Sean Carroll 


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