It’s been 30 years

February 15, 2018

It was thirty years ago today that Richard Feynman departed the physical world for the spirit world of our memories. I’d like to share a story that is not widely known, but is especially apt this year: Richard Feynman read his own obituary.

How was it possible that a man could read his own obituary?

In October 1987, I got a call from the LA Times: was it true that Feynman was near death? (He had just undergone his fourth surgery in eight years for abdominal cancer.) I said the doctors there tried a new technique for post-operative recovery that seemed to be working quite well, and Feynman would be returning home in a matter of days.

Then I got an idea: thinking of Mark Twain’s reputed line “The report of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” I asked the writer whether Feynman’s obituary had already been written—and if so, could he show it to Feynman?

He said yes, and yes—as long as Feynman understood that no changes by the deceased are allowed. Feynman thought that was fair enough.

A few days later, the obituary arrived in the mail. I took it over to Feynman. It wasn’t long before he was shaking his head in regret.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

Feynman pointed to the phrase “In the end, he seemed to devote almost as much energy to maintaining his image as a macho womanizer who loved a good laugh as to solving the mathematical mysteries which won him the Nobel prize…”

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Now that I have had more than enough time to reflect on this, I can understand better my own contributions to the situation that caused Feynman’s regret.

I grew up around Caltech—my father was a professor there. One of my big memories from the summer of 1960 was accompanying him to Mt. Wilson, where he was making dynamic photos of the sun at sunrise. While he took photos, I fed the local birds and chipmunks sunflower seeds. Around 7AM, when his observations and photography for the day were done (the atmosphere is calm only for about an hour after sunrise), we went to the cafeteria, dubbed “the Monastery,” to eat breakfast.

There was a female astronomer doing research at Mt. Wilson, but I never saw her: for one thing, she was awake at night, and slept during the day. Still, she could have come in for “dinner” at 7AM while we were having breakfast, except for one thing: there was a rule that no women were allowed to eat in the “Monastery”—she ate in her room.

Caltech did not allow female students until 1970. (Today, 45% of undergrads, and 30% of graduate students at Caltech are women.) That means Feynman gave his legendary Lectures on Physics in a hall where only males were present, which enabled him to make jokes about a “lady driver” (who actually outsmarts the cop), and invoke similar stereotypes. And those stereotypes easily made it into print because neither the editors nor the publisher were women. (And perhaps it was expected that few if any of the readers of a physics textbook would be women.)

When Feynman told his “adventures of a curious character” to me during the 1970s and 80s, it was a similar atmosphere. The editors for Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!—both from Caltech and W. W. Norton—were men. There were no women in the creative process, from recording and transcription through editing and publication, even though—had we thought about it—there would surely be female readers…

As this iniquitous situation began to dawn on me since the original publication of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, I asked the publisher to remove some of the more offensive stories—but the new editor (a woman, at last!) advised me to keep them in: let the historical record stand, just like Feynman’s original obituary—to my regret.

— Ralph Leighton