Great minds think alike…unfortunately

In class this past week, someone mentioned Walter Lewin, a renowned MIT astrophysicists known for giving tremendous lectures. The description reminded of Richard Feynman, another physicist known for tremendous teaching chops. Both of these professors are well renowned and honored for successfully communicating science to broad audiences and making tremendous discoveries. Feynman was famous for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) and his Nobel Prize. Lewin discovered rotating neutron stars with balloons. Both men were clearly brilliant in their own right and provided tremendous insight into the scientific world in ways most lecturers could not.

Here’s the problem though: both have also had some serious claims of sexual harassment and sexist behavior. In “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” there is a chapter dedicated to Feynman recounting how he literally TRAINED himself to disrespect women so he could sleep with them. The best summary of this that I’ve seen is here, on the blog Restructure!. Which to quote a quote:

Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.

That’s Feynman’s own words, in what’s basically an autobiography. Not the best look.

Similarly, Lewin was accused of sexual harassment through his online courses, and MIT took away his emeritus status and took down his lectures. I can’t find much info on what he actually did, but that hardly matters. He was a brilliant man that preyed on women.

In a similar vein, James Watson of DNA-fame has also displayed horribly racist and demeaning things. The man is brilliant for helping discover DNA and for helping found the human genome project and such, but even his disrespect for Rosalind Franklin and her research which he stole shows a poor attitude.

My question is: should we revere these men? Should we use their lectures and their notes to teach? 

On the one hand, they’ve still made valuable discoveries and have revealed tremendous methods of teaching. They still have the potential to teach many generations and inspire awe in countless future scientists. On the other, they’ve held some pretty shady views that muck up their legacies. Placing them on a pedestal also places their misdeeds on that same pedestal. This seems like a dangerous game; we don’t want to encourage more bigotry in science and education. But again, they were amazing at providing explanations in ways that people could understand complex ideas. It would be a tragedy to lose that. Do we use their teaching examples and point out their imperfections to say “you can be better”? I don’t know. I hate to waste a brilliant idea, but I’d also hate to encourage any form of bigotry and discrimination.


What are your thoughts? Did you know about these case? Do you know about others? If anyone has examples of the opposite, of brilliant minds that defended minorities or stood up against harassment, please share them.

3 Replies to “Great minds think alike…unfortunately”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I guess there is no perfect person 🙂 As a matter of fact, 2018 Nobel Prize on literature will not be awarded to anyone since the best candidate is involved in sexual harassment issue. I would agree to take away their honors and awards since these titles/awards are for their contribution to the society as well as being a leader in certain field. If they didn’t act as a model or leader supposed to be, they are not going to win any honors. However, for the knowledge they produced and materials they prepared for the curriculum, I would more inclined to use them since they are valuable products from knowledgeable people. I am not saying their products are perfect but those knowledge carried by the notes and materials will continue benefit the next generation.

  2. This same problem exists in the art world, what do we do about the Cosby’s and Picasso’s of the world? What do we do about the people that make great contributions to the arts like Harvey Weinstein but are monsters behaviorally? I think the answer is the same in science/academics as it is in art, and I sort of touched on this in my blog post on a similar topic, to remove the ego from the product. The art isn’t about the artist, the science isn’t about the scientist. Remove the idea of the Great Artist, the Great Scientist. If we de-mythologized these people and got rid of the cult of the personality that surrounds these professions this question wouldn’t really be a question. It wouldn’t be about their personality. Their personality wouldn’t matter (except where they interact with people, but , at least in academia that can be controlled for, and the person doing the brilliant thinking can be left alone in their office, away from student, to do their thinking). If we decouple the greatness of the ideas from the personality that develops them, then the ideas are insulated.

    1. To some extent, I agree with you, that their knowledge/contribution should not need to be connected with their personality. We should not idolize people, but rather appreciate their contributions as simple contributions. However, I don’t think we can just leave the personality to do their own thing. We should show that you can’t get far with bigoted ideas and beliefs if we really want to foster inclusivity and diversity. For all we know, these idolized figures scared off many superior thinkers with their disgraceful habits.

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