Richard Feynman was one of the "big personalities" of physics: brilliant, colorful, passionate, creative, outspoken, and larger than life (despite a modest physical stature), with an equally intense sex drive to match. And he wasn’t shy about saying so. Small wonder, then, that Feynman figures so prominently in a short piece in the current issue of SEED magazine ("Getting Physical") on the unlikely topic of the sex lives of famous physicists.
I hope SEED‘s Website doesn’t crash from all the hits it’s likely to get over the next few days. Sex sells, after all — even sex among physicists.
I’m a big fan of SEED, since its objectives dovetail so nicely with my own interests: namely, making physics — and other related disciplines in math and science — accessible to the public at large and placing it in the broader context of modern culture. So it was kinda nice to see myself quoted in the article; I’d completely forgotten about my email exchange with the author, Joshua Roebke, way back in early December.
True, he didn’t mention my book, Black Bodies and Quantum Cats (which you can all buy from Amazon — go, do it now!), although the online version links to my Website. (Pardon the plug. Publishing is a cutthroat business, and we authors must by necessity indulge in the odd bit of shameless self-promotion, just to prevent our modest book offerings from sinking under the weight of the competition.) But he quoted me correctly, accurately represented my views, and chivalrously omitted my indiscreetly salacious email declaration that, had our respective ages and time periods meshed, "I totally would have done Feynman." C’mon, the guy was smart, funny, and passionate not just about about physics, but about life. He was endlessly curious, right up until he died, and to my mind, there is nothing sexier than that.
What I found disturbing is that I was the only named source quoted. Among other things, it gives the misleading impression that I was Roebke’s primary source for the article — which I know not to be the case. It also inflates my relative importance and expertise in the field of physics history. My only expertise is writing; I lay no claim to being a physics historian, although I’m fascinated by the topic and write about it often. I doubt this is Roebke’s fault; he probably just couldn’t find anyone as naively forthcoming as me to talk about the subject on the record. That might explain why he concluded — erroneously, in my humble opinion — that modern-day physicists just aren’t as sexy as they used to be. (Jen-Luc Piquant muses, "Maybe they’re just shy.")
Sex and physicists isn’t so much a taboo topic, as one that’s considered largely irrelevant, relegated to small footnotes and colorful asides in historical biographies. I personally enjoy those kinds of anecdotes, and think they serve to make physicists more human and approachable, especially since their subject is so esoteric and out-of-reach — to the average layperson, that is. I once heard a physicist confess that he was drawn to physics because of his volatile childhood, finding solace in math and science, where the messiness of human emotions and tangled relationships didn’t exist. But physicists are not sex-less, completely cerebral and unemotional
beings, rising majestically above the muck of more tawdry human
concerns. Inevitably, the muck will occasionally sully the pristine walls of the Ivory Tower Enclave.
Ultimately it’s the science that matters, not who slept with whom, and how often. That’s as it should be. But physicists shouldn’t deny their humanity, either. After all, if Roebke’s article is true, the insight that led to Erwin Schroedinger’s famous wave equation emerged during a tryst with an old girlfriend.
Not that this should be anyone’s primary motivation for seeking out amorous encounters. "Engage in lots of sex = revolutionize physics" isn’t some kind of magic formula. Say what you will about his personal peccadilloes, Feynman had the right idea, and Roebke generously gives him the last word: "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it."