Feynman Sexist Pig!

“One of the most impressive discoveries was the origin of the energy of the stars, that makes them continue to burn. One of the men who discovered this was out with his girl friend the night after he realized that nuclear reactions must be going on in the stars in order to make them shine.
She said “Look at how pretty the stars shine!”
He said, “Yes, and right now I am the only man in the world who knows why they shine.”
She merely laughed at him. She was not impressed with being out with the only man who, at that moment, knew why stars shine. Well, it is sad to be alone, but that is the way it is in this world.”
Richard Feynman, “The Feynman Lectures”

A person I respect recommended the book “What do you care what other people think?” by Richard P. Feynman to me (after I recommended “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” to the readers of his blog, also by Richard P. Feynman). I have yet to read the whole book, but I read one chapter of “What do you care what other people think?” — and it impressed me so much that I would like to post here verbatim. Yup, it really speaks to me … even more so given that it was written by an impressive physicist in 1988, way before the current insanity in Academia. So, here it is:

A FEW YEARS after I gave some lectures for the freshmen at Caltech (which were published as the Feynman Lectures on Physics), I received a long letter from a feminist group. I was accused of being anti-woman because of two stories: the first was a discussion of the subtleties of velocity, and involved a woman driver being stopped by a cop. There’s a discussion about how fast she was going, and I had her raise valid objections to the cop’s definitions of velocity. The letter said I was making the woman look stupid.

The other story they objected to was told by the great astronomer Arthur Eddington, who had just figured out that the stars get their power from burning hydrogen in a nuclear reaction producing helium. He recounted how, on the night after his discovery, he was sitting on a bench with his girlfriend. She said, “Look how pretty the stars shine!” To which he replied, “Yes, and right now, I’m the only man in the world who knows how they shine!’ He was describing a kind of wonderful loneliness you have when you make a discovery.

The letter claimed that I was saying a woman is incapable of understanding nuclear reactions.

I figured there was no point in trying to answer their accusations in detail, so I wrote a short letter back to them: “Don’t bug me, man!”

Needless to say, that didn’t work too well. Another letter came: “Your response to our letter of September 29th is unsatisfactory …” — blah, blah, blah. This letter warned that if I didn’t get the publisher to revise the things they objected to, there would be trouble.

I ignored the letter and forgot about it.

A year or so later, the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded me a prize for writing those books, and asked me to speak at their meeting in San Francisco. My sister, Joan, lived in Palo Alto — an hour’s drive away — so I stayed with her the night before and we went to the meeting together.

As we approached the lecture hall, we found people standing there giving out handbills to everybody going in. We each took one, and glanced at it. At the top it said, “A PROTEST.” Then it showed excerpts from the letters they sent me, and my response (in full). It concluded in large letters: “FEYNMAN SEXIST PIG!”

Joan stopped suddenly and rushed back: “These are interesting,” she said to the protester. “I’d like some more of them!”

When she caught up with me, she said, “Gee whiz, Richard; what did you do?”

I told her what had happened as we walked into the hall.

At the front of the hall, near the stage, were two prominent women in the American Association of Physics Teachers. One was in charge of women’s affairs for the organization, and the other was Fay Ajzenberg, a professor of physics I knew, from Pennsylvania. They saw me coming down towards the stage accompanied by this woman with a fistful of handbills, talking to me. Fay walked up to her and said, “Do you realize that Professor Feynman has a sister that he encouraged to go into physics, and that she has a Ph.D. in physics?”

“Of course I do,” said Joan. “I’m that sister!”

Fay and her associate explained to me that the protesters were a group — led by a man, ironically — who were always disrupting meetings in Berkeley. “We’ll sit on either side of you to show our solidarity, and just before you speak, I’ll get up and say something to quiet the protesters,” Fay said.

Because there was another talk before mine, I had time to think of something to say. I thanked Fay, but declined her offer.

As soon as I got up to speak, half a dozen protesters marched down to the front of the lecture hall and paraded right below the stage, holding their picket signs high, chanting, “Feynman sexist pig! Feynman sexist pig!”

I began my talk by telling the protesters, “I’m sorry that my short answer to your letter brought you here unnecessarily. There are more serious places to direct one’s attention towards improving the status of women in physics than these relatively trivial mistakes — if that’s what you want to call them — in a textbook. But perhaps, after all, it’s good that you came. For women do indeed suffer from prejudice and discrimination in physics, and your presence here today serves to remind us of these difficulties and the need to remedy them.”

The protesters looked at one another. Their picket signs began to come slowly down, like sails in a dying wind. I continued: “Even though the American Association Physics Teachers has given me an award for teaching, I must confess I don’t know how to teach. Therefore, I have nothing to say about teaching. Instead, I would like to talk about something that will be especially interesting to the women in the audience: I would like to talk about the structure of the proton.”

The protesters put their picket signs down and walked off. My hosts told me later that the man and his group of protesters had never been defeated so easily.

(Recently I discovered a transcript of my speech, and what I said at the beginning doesn’t seem anywhere near as dramatic as the way I remember it. What I remember saying is much more wonderful than what I actually said!)

After my talk, some of the protesters came up to press me about the woman-driver story. “Why did it have to be a woman driver?” they said. “You are implying that all women are bad drivers.”

“But the woman makes the cop look bad,” I said. “Why aren’t you concerned about the cop?”

“That’s what you expect from cops!” one of the protesters said. “They’re all pigs!”

“But you should be concerned,” I said. “I forgot to say in the story that the cop was a woman!”

Source: “What do you care what other people think?” by Richard P. Feynman

I can’t add anything here … so I just say: Kudos, Mr. Feynman. 🙂 Brilliant way to handle this insanity. I only wish you were alive today … it’s gotten worse. Way worse.

Categories: Community Aspects, Doing Science, Gender, General Tips, Improving your Creativity, Inspiration, Learning to do Science, People, Realizing Creative Projects, Science



4 Comments on Feynman Sexist Pig!

  1. Michael W. Perry // 2014-09-20 at 12:42 //

    Did the protestors, as they left as the speech started, realize that they were reinforcing stereotypes that women are not interested in science, including “the structure of the proton.” They were also supporting those who claim that feminists are ill-temptered and only interested in stirring up trouble.

    Probably not. Past a certain point, people with ideologies tend to loose their sense of humor, especially that of irony, which can be defined as: “The humorous (or mildly sarcastic) use of words to imply something different from, and often opposite to, their literal meaning.”

  2. Daniel // 2014-09-20 at 14:41 //

    Yup, never trust a movement that cannot laugh about itself. You should take a serious matter seriously, but yourself lightly. But I’m not sure if I would call these people feminists — at least if you use an egalitarian definition of feminism and honestly mean it (in short: not only for equal rights but also for equal responsibilities). Unfortunately, that’s not the definition many “feminists” on Twitter/Tumbler/Blogs operate under.

    Instead, many of those people are much like the protestors. A bunch of “Social Justice Warriors”, or rather: Social Justice Parasites. People who infect movements for the sole purpose of personal advantage (e.g., power/influence/money/personal validation). Hiding behind (or within) an otherwise just cause (seriously, who is against equality?), claiming to fight for it (in some cases, even when the fight has long been won) — while damaging it instead (which in turn ensures that they can further misuse it for their gains).

    Hmm, but that’s perhaps something for a posting of its own.

  3. Luc Beaulieu // 2014-09-20 at 21:56 //

    Told you you’d liked it! Prof. Feynman was a very impressive person…

  4. Daniel // 2014-09-22 at 10:16 //

    Yup, thank you very much for it 🙂 And oh yes, yes he was a very impressive person.

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