Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!”

or We Marginalized People Need to be More Like Feynman.

Update: There are some problems with the original post, as I had assumed that everyone else’s work was technical in nature and had formalized customs on what are considered “wrong” answers. In non-technical work situations, telling others that they are wrong would more likely get you fired. See the comments for some criticisms. I have amended this post, which appears as a strikeout correction and a note in the comments.

When the subject of discussion was physics, Feynman‘s brain did not process the higher authority of the people he spoke to. For example, even when he was unknown in his field, he could easily state, “No, you’re wrong,” or “You’re crazy,” to a famous and established physicist, because he would forget “who he was talking to”.

While some people may consider this behaviour arrogant, it actually indicates a temporary extinction of self-consciousness and ego, which is ideal when solving problems.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Monster Minds, Feynman recounts his experience as a graduate student at Princeton, and research assistant under John Wheeler:

[…] Wheeler said, “Feynman, you’re a young fella—you should give a seminar on this. You need experience in giving talks. Meanwhile, I’ll work out the quantum theory part and give a seminar on that later.”

So it was to be my first technical talk, and Wheeler made arrangements with Eugene Wigner to put it on the regular seminar schedule.

A day or two before the talk I saw Wigner in the hail. “Feynman,” he said, “I think that work you’re doing with Wheeler is very interesting, so I’ve invited Russell to the seminar.” Henry Norris Russell, the famous, great astronomer of the day, was coming to the lecture!

Wigner went on. “I think Professor von Neumann would also he interested.” Johnny von Neumann was the greatest mathematician around. “And Professor Pauli is visiting from Switzerland, it so happens, so I’ve invited Professor Pauli to come”—Pauli was a very famous physicist—and by this time, I’m turning yellow. Finally, Wigner said, “Professor Einstein only rarely comes to our weekly seminars, but your work is so interesting that I’ve invited him specially, so he’s coming, too.”

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Feynman called a woman “worse than a whore” for not exchanging sex for sandwiches.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter You Just Ask Them?, Richard Feynman frequented a bar and desired to have sexual intercourse with the women there. He discovered that the women in the bar did not provide sexual favors in exchange for monetary compensation in the form of drinks. Although he gained a reputation for spending money on drinks for women, he was frustrated at the fact that the women did not consider alcoholic drinks to be payment for sexual services.

Feynman felt he was being cheated, and complained to his two friends from the bar: a female nightclub entertainer and her husband, the master of ceremonies. The master offered Feynman lessons on how to ensure that a woman he meets in a bar has sexual intercourse with him:

“OK,” he says. “The whole principle is this: The guy wants to be a gentleman. He doesn’t want to be thought of as impolite, crude, or especially a cheapskate. As long as the girl knows the guy’s motives so well, it’s easy to steer him in the direction she wants him to go.

“Therefore,” he continued, “under no circumstances be a gentleman! You must disrespect the girls. Furthermore, the very first rule is, don’t buy a girl anything –– not even a package of cigarettes — until you’ve asked her if she’ll sleep with you, and you’re convinced that she will, and that she’s not lying.”

“Uh… you mean… you don’t… uh… you just ask them?”

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Feynman was asked to join an anti-Semitic club.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter The Dignified Professor, one of Feynman’s memories of his early days as a professor at Cornell University included the following:

Then another guy came into my office. He wanted to talk to me about philosophy, and I can’t really quite remember what he said, but he wanted me to join some kind of a club of professors. The club was some sort of anti-Semitic club that thought the Nazis weren’t so bad. He tried to explain to me how there were too many Jews doing this and that — some crazy thing. So I waited until he got all finished, and said to him, “You know, you made a big mistake: I was brought up in a Jewish family.” He went out, and that was the beginning of my loss of respect for some of the professors in the humanities, and other areas, at Cornell University.

Feynman was an avowed atheist, and here he even described himself as being “brought up in a Jewish family” instead of being “Jewish”. Being Jewish was not an important part of his identity, except in cases where he experienced discrimination.

Experiences of discrimination, not one’s culture, is the most powerful reinforcement of one’s ethnic identity, one’s identity as the Other. Regardless, people of the ethnic majority continue to believe that ethnic minorities identify with their ethnicity due to some perceived cultural staticism.

Related post:

Feynman gets the wrong idea upon seeing a beautiful Japanese woman.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Would You Solve the Dirac Equation?, Feynman recounts his first stay at a Japanese hotel in the early 1950s:

I pushed open the doors and admired the lovely garden, and sat down at the table to do a little work.

I wasn’t there more than fifteen or twenty minutes when something caught my eye. I looked up, out towards the garden, and I saw, sitting at the entrance to the door, draped in the corner, a very beautiful young Japanese woman, in a most lovely outfit.

I had read a lot about the customs of Japan, and I had an idea of why she was sent to my room. I thought, “This might be very interesting!”

She knew a little English. “Would you rike to see the garden?” she asked.

I put on the shoes that went with the yukata I was wearing, and we went out into the garden. She took my arm and showed me everything.

It turned out that because she knew a little English, the hotel manager thought I would like her to show me the garden — that’s all it was. I was a bit disappointed, of course, but this was a meeting of cultures, and I knew it was easy to get the wrong idea.

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“Ofey” (Richard Feynman) on “the blacks”

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was a famous theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and sexist. Feynman thought for himself and rebelled against social convention, tradition, and “The Man”. However, Feynman was also a white male professor, and his position with its associated privileges makes him “The Man” relative to those with fewer privileges.

In his amusing autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter But Is It Art?, Feyman writes:

So I decided to sell my drawings. However, I didn’t want people to buy my drawings because the professor of physics isn’t supposed to be able to draw, isn’t that wonderful, so I made up a false name. My friend Dudley Wright suggested “Au Fait,” which means “It is done” in French. I spelled it O-f-e-y, which turned out to be a name the blacks used for “whitey.” But after all, I was whitey, so it was all right.

While Feynman recognizes that he is “whitey”—which suggests a greater sophistication than that of many white liberals today—his usage of the objectifying and homogenizing term “the blacks” reveals his racial insularity in the context of the United States. He received his Bachelor’s degree, PhD, and professorships before laws against racial segregation were passed in the 1960s. There is no doubt that Feynman was an exceptionally brilliant individual, but he was also a beneficiary of institutional racism and white privilege.