For a long time I’ve admired and looked up to the great physicist Richard Feynman as one of my intellectual and creative heroes. He lived an extraordinary life, not only of great scientific achievement, but also of adventure, intellectual freedom, incisive critical thinking, and creativity. He was a living example of a principle that has inspired me all my life, the idea that the mind has no inherent limits, that the mind can go anywhere.

So it was with some dismay that I encountered in the book Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, among an otherwise delightful collection of fascinating little stories from Feynman’s life, a somewhat disturbing story about Feynman attempting to learn techniques of seducing women in order to get them to have sex with him. A couple of his friends advise him to completely dispense with niceties, and to refrain from doing anything for a woman, buying her anything, or even granting her any simple courtesies unless she first agrees to have sex with him. He is just supposed to come right out and ask her right at the beginning, and only when she agrees to sleep with him should he then allow himself to do things for her or buy her stuff. Feynman is at first skeptical about this advice but, in the spirit of scientific investigation, he tries out their recommended strategy as an experiment and finds that it actually works, he can get women to have sex with him that way. I suppose this story was supposed to be amusing but I was not amused, in fact I was rather appalled by it, and especially by the casual contempt in which Feynman seems to hold some of these women that he encounters. So my hero Feynman immediately declined quite a bit in my estimation.

Not only that, but I later read an article about Feynman’s experience late in his career when he had a job working as a consultant for Thinking Machines Corp., a pioneering computer company that developed the first massively-parallel supercomputers. The article was written by a man who had worked with Feynman at Thinking Machines. While Feynman distinguished himself with significant contributions to the understanding of massively-parallel computer design, he was unfortunately very condescending in his treatment of the female computer engineers who worked there. He talked down to them and treated them like clerical staff or like servants, ordering them to get coffee for him, etc. Professor Feynman, I am very disappointed in you.

Of course this probably points that there is a problem in general with us holding up certain people as our heroes. Sadly, I’ve found that it almost always turns out that someone we think is a hero has some terrible flaws that render them unheroic after all. The fact that we don’t have a time machine available to us that would allow us to go back into the past to visit our heroes is probably a fortunate thing.

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