Sean Carroll has decided, using the words of TripleIntegral, to re-evaluate the actual achievements of Richard Feynman according to the contemporary criteria of political correctness. Sean is perhaps the first person who has applied this methodology of "humanities" to hard sciences (with a possible exception of Lysenkoists). He wrote about the "counter role model", as he describes Feynman, that
- "[Feynman] didn't have wide-ranging intellectual interests outside of science ... He was a pretty narrow guy ... But [having broad interests] might make [him a] better human being[s]."
I happen to think that Feynman was not only one of five most original and important physicists of the 20th century, but he has also been an extraordinary human being. He was not only the father of the path integral approach to quantum mechanics and QED in particular, the originator of the Feynman diagrams, and theory of superfluids - but also the author of many other concepts such as nanotechnology and quantum computing (the breadth of these contributions already kind of ridicules the breadth of the contributions of other scientists mentioned in Sean's article).
But Feynman's virtues are not confined in science. Those of us who have read Feynman's books - and not only the subset that prefers Feynman's name as a part of their e-mail address - also know that he was a great teacher, a loving boyfriend, husband, and father, and a very successful writer with an extraordinary sense of humor. He was good at playing drums, painting, picking locks, and spotting errors and tricks. Feynman has decoded Mayan calendars, Mexican hieroglyphs, and he may be labeled as a social anthropologist focusing on cultures and languages of Japan, Brazil, Las Vegas, and Tuva (thanks to CIP for reminding me).
And he was a very honest person and a prototype of scientific integrity and independence; a curious, emotional, straightforward guy whose thinking was rooted in common sense. A person who believed that the people should be what they are, and they should not pretend that they're something else - and a man who lived in this way. He loved freedom - and freedom was one of the values that has made his life happy. And yes, he was also a man who was able to get very angry. ;-) He was also a guy who understood the modern world, including the world of politics and economy. A universal scientist that has mastered virtually all fundamental issues related to physics, biology, evolution, sociology, and technology. A thinker who always preferred to see how the things work, instead of learning what other people say.
Feynman's parents were rather ordinary people. Feynman's accent resembled ordinary Americans - well, the kind of accent that I would have hard time to follow. ;-) Let me admit that the huge concentration of the folks in academia whose parents - and indeed grandparents - were already scholars seems kind of sick to me. (Disclaimer: uncles are OK.) Feynman definitely did not fit this "rule". This allowed him to be independent of many prejudices that are widespread in the "intellectual" circles.
What do I think is the main reason behind Sean's bitter attack? Well, the main reason is that Feynman could not stand the pompous fools, if you allow me to use his own words. Honest fools are fine - we may always listen to them and try to help them. But the fools who pretend that they are smart are horrible. Feynman had zero tollerance for simpletons who were pretending that they were intelligent and amazing - the kind of dopes that also like to offer their "wisdom" on various blogs. The morons who sell a complete stupidity as a new kind of science that they demand to be appreciated by others. Those who abuse their status of "intellectuals" to pretend that their shallow opinions and speculations are more relevant than the verified common sense of ordinary people just because they "are" the smart ones and the chosen ones.
The rational readers of this blog who happen to know the far-left-wing nutcases who like to attend (not only) the Preposterous Universe understand very well why Feynman can't be welcome in that world. The readers of my blog probably know that I believe that even though Feynman may have been mistaken in a few isolated cases, he was definitely right in the bulk. Although Feynman may count as a universal genius, he was also a "narrow guy" in the appropriate sense of the word. However, Sean is absolutely wrong if he thinks that being a "narrow guy" in this sense is a bad thing.
Why was Feynman a narrow guy? Well, Feynman was a thinker who did not appreciate philosophy - the kind of picky thinking disconnected from reality that has provably made almost no progress for several millenia. Is this the reason for Sean's discomfort? Unlike Feynman the "counter role model", Weinberg is Sean's "role model". Nevertheless, even Steven Weinberg called a whole chapter in his book (Dreams on a Final Theory) "Against Philosophy". So I wonder whether philosophy is the reason. Similar comparison holds for religion. Maybe, the reason of Feynman's narrowness was that he did not consider Cargo Cult Science to be an alternative and equally good approach to reality, but rather a possible trap that we must avoid. I guess that David Bohm who became convinced that Uri Geller had had supernatural powers and who published a paper about it in Nature was intellectually broader. (I think that Sean could also think that David Bohm was broader because he joined the Communist Party in 1942.)
Apart from Feynman's negative opinion about the self-described intellectuals who enjoy the ritual, obfuscation, and pomposity of intellectuals, there also exist many reasons why Feynman's political opinions are not appreciated by the far-left-wing bloggers. What did Feynman think about socialism, for example? Well, he obviously re-invented classical liberal theory, the basis of libertarianism (to use the U.S. terminology):
- So Warsaw is not very heavy and dull, as one hears Moscow is. On the other hand, you meet at every turn that kind of dull stupid backwardness characteristic of government—you know, like the fact that change for $20 isn’t available when you want to get your card renewed at the US Immigration Office downtown...
- The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity—and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand. (What Do You Care What Other People Think, 90-91)
And what did Feynman think about the poverty of the third world?
- There was a special dinner [at the interdisciplinary conference about the "ethics of equality"] at some point, and the head of the theology place, a very nice, very Jewish man gave a speech. It was a good speech, and he was a very good speaker, so while it sounds crazy now, when I’m telling about it, at that time his main idea sounded completely obvious and true. He talked about the big differences in the welfare of various countries, which cause jealousy, which leads to conflict, and now that we have atomic weapons, any war and we’re doomed, so therefore the right way out is to strive for peace by making sure there are no great differences from place to place....Everybody was listening to this, and we were all full of sacrificial feeling, and all thinking we ought to do this. But I came back to my senses on the way home...
- The idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time. (Surely You’re Joking, 282-283)
It's not just about serious politics. What did Feynman think about the gender disputes? Well, many readers describe various stories and rumors in the comments. Let me mention a joke that he used in his lectures to explain the concepts of velocity and derivatives:
- "In order to get to the subtleties in a clearer fashion," Feynman says, "we remind you of a joke which you surely must have heard. At the point where a lady in a car is caught by a cop, the cop comes up to her and says, 'Lady, you were going 60 miles an hour!' She says, 'That's impossible, sir, I was traveling only seven minutes. It is ridiculous - how can I go 60 miles an hour when I wasn't going an hour?' How would you answer her if you were the cop? Of course, if you were really the cop, then no subtleties are involved; it is very simple: you say, 'Tell that to the judge!' But let us suppose that we do not have that escape and we make a more honest, intellectual attack on the problem, and try to explain to this lady what we mean by the idea that she was going 60 miles an hour. Just what do we mean? We say, 'What we mean, lady, is this: if you kept on going the same way as you are going now, in the next hour you would go 60 miles.' She could say, 'Well, my foot was off the accelerator and the car was slowing down, so if I kept on going that way it would not go 60 miles.' The lady can also argue this way: "If I kept on going the way I'm going for one more hour, I would run into that wall at the end of the street!' It is not so easy to say what we mean."
The feminists complained and they said that this was a typical example of a stereotype that the females were less good than the males in spatial orientation and physics. But of course, these feminists were completely wrong because the cop from Feynman's story was female, too! :-) By having criticized Feynman, the feminists revealed that they were victims of a much more serious prejudice - namely that the cops should always be male. (Well, except for the detail that the written version of his lectures contains the word "sir".)
As you can see in this article, it's unlikely that Sean Carroll himself believes that Feynman had less broad interests than the "better human beings", as Sean puts it. The real reason why Sean does not like Richard Feynman is different, and it is political in nature.
Feynman was not only a genius, but also a guy who could not understand the value of string theory when he was old. But he understood very well that the most likely reason was that he had just been too old to follow all the new developments - much like Einstein who was not flexible enough to appreciate quantum mechanics. And the string theorists were simply uncapable to explain to Feynman why their insights were important. Ironically, string theory and related developments have made Feynman's approach far more important than was previously thought and many string theorists feel like Feynman's acolytes.
That was the main article. What follows are the comments. No doubt, most of the comments will be posted by those who will feel threatened by this description of Feynman's viewpoints - the complete morons who are used to be treated as intellectuals. Those who believe that the more sissy, unrealistic, unnatural, egalitarian, diluted, postmodern, confusing, feminist, hypocritical, orthodox, ideological, and politically correct a given opinion is, the higher intellectual respect it deserves. Many of them will probably try to politicize this story about Richard Feynman - let me say in advance that neither Feynman nor me have been registered Republicans.
Have fun! :-)