#metoo-ing Feynman

Surely you’re a creep, Mr. Feynman

This is maybe the third article or blogspot I’ve seen basically accusing Feynman of sexual predation. This charge, as Chad Orzel argued a couple years back, appears baseless to me. Feynman was sexually promiscuous and did not shy from it. But chasing women is not predation even if you do so in a duplicitous or sexist way.

The odd allegations of abuse from Feynman’s second wife is more concerning. It’s hard to know what to make of this since there’s no record of Feynman abusing other partners. Another relevant point is that non-acrimonious divorce in California wasn’t legal at the time so to be granted a divorce Feynman or his wife would have to plead guilty to something like adultery or cruelty. To quote Wikipedia:

In many other states, especially California, the most popular allegation for divorce was cruelty (which was then unavailable in New York). For example, in 1950, wives pleaded “cruelty” as the basis for 70 percent of San Francisco divorce cases.[31] Wives would regularly testify to the same facts: their husbands swore at them, hit them, and generally treated them terribly.[31] This procedure was described by Supreme Court of California Associate Justice Stanley Mosk:

Every day, in every superior court in the state, the same melancholy charade was played: the “innocent” spouse, generally the wife, would take the stand and, to the accompanying cacophony of sobbing and nose-blowing, testify under the deft guidance of an attorney to the spousal conduct that she deemed “cruel.

So how much stock should we put into the allegations of Feynman abusing his second wife due to her interrupting his bongo playing and calculus?

The author then writes:

Feynman is not the only powerful man who has been able to control the story of science to the disadvantage of the women in his professional orbit. For a long time, the world believed that Rosalind Franklin had nothing to do with James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s discovery of DNA’s structure. In no small part, that’s because Watson said she didn’t, and we believed him. His 1968 autobiography Double Helix was the first full-length account of the discovery story. He refers to Franklin as “Rosy” throughout the book, and describes her physical appearance in blatantly sexist ways. He also omits the part of the story in which he and Crick used Franklin’s Photograph 51 without her permission or knowledge; Photograph 51 was the key evidence to unlocking the structure of DNA. He couldn’t completely erase Franklin, since too many people knew who she was, but he diminished her enough with a whimsical nickname and assessments of her attractiveness that her part in the story could easily be missed

This is a terrible but popular reading on the history of DNA’s discovery. In Watson and Crick’s paper (pdf) they thank Franklin and Wilkins for their contributions. The Watson & Crick paper was then followed by companion papers by Wilkins and Franklin & Gosling. If Watson & Crick were trying to hide Franklin’s contribution they did a terrible job of it. Furthermore, the stealing of data narrative is a gross exaggeration of what happened. Matthew Cobb talks about the history here. Wilkin’s started the DNA project and graduate student Gosling took Photograph 51 while they worked under the supervision of John Randall. From my memory of the history, it was Randall who ultimately had final say on who got to use the crystallography data taken by Franklin and Gosling.

Anyway, like Orzel, I’ve come to a greater appreciation for Feynman as I’ve read more of his scientific works and about his personal life (this book by his daughter Michelle is particularly good). He was a brilliant and charismatic man during a particularly interesting part of 20th century physics. Like all of us, Feynman was not without some character faults. The author of the Feynman piece writes that she wants the “culture of science [to be] dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up” but it seems like dishonest smears against long dead men is a poor example to lead with.

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