Richard Feynman and Women’s Invisible Skills

Like so many others, I am a great admirer of Richard Feynman, the great 20th century physicist, Nobel Laureate, and overall “curious character.” Known for his brilliance, he was also known for being an extremely visual thinker. This is probably why I like him: for me, he is an exemplar of a great mind that got to very deep ideas by an unusual and often-overlooked route.

A recent comment by my friend Herb Lin sent me to one of Feynman’s essays, “What is Science,” in the collection The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The essay is the text of a speech Feynman gave in 1966 to the National Science Teachers’ Association (shout out to NSTA, whose e-newsletters often point me to useful resources). In it, Feynman tells a couple of tales from his early years, as a way of describing how he learned “what science is like.” After describing his very early education (more on that great story in the next post) he continues:

When I was at Cornell, I was rather fascinated by the student body, which seems to me was a dilute mixture of some sensible people in a big mass of dumb people studying home economics, etc., including lots of girls. I used to sit in the cafeteria with the students and eat and try to overhear their conversations and see if there was one intelligent word coming out. You can imagine my surprise when I discovered a tremendous thing, it seemed to me. I listened to a conversation between two girls, and one was explaining that if you want to make a straight line, you see, you go over a certain number to the right for each row you go up, that is, if you go over each time the same amount when you go up a row, you make a straight line. A deep principle of analytic geometry! It went on. I was rather amazed. I didn’t realize the female mind was capable of understanding analytic geometry. 

She went on and said, “Suppose you have another line coming in from the other side and you want to figure out where they are going to intersect.” Suppose on one line you go over two to the right for every one you go up, and the other line goes over three to the right for every one that it goes up, and they start twenty steps apart, etc.–I was flabbergasted. She figured out where the intersection was! It turned out that one girl was explaining to the other how to knit argyle socks. (Pgs. 175-176)

I have quoted at length because this section is such a rich trove of things to think with. The first–and it was Feynman’s reason for telling the story–is as an illustration of Feynman’s repeated assertion that Mathematics is Pattern. I find this a wonderful and generative idea. I love pattern, particularly patterns made by ancient and indigenous groups, but I have always associated this love of mine with the arts, especially fiber arts. It never occurred to me that instead of turning right from pattern and getting to the arts, I could turn left and be in the realm of mathematics. I am slowly learning this, first from the wonderful work of Ron Eglash on ethnomathematics, and now from Feynman! It’s like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia. Why didn’t anyone tell me! I feel cheated by my long, tedious, and painful mathematics schooling.

I hope you are still with me, and have not thrown your iPad across the room in disgust. The second point, of course, is the extraordinary sexism of the passage.  Although I find it reprehensible (and he digs himself in even deeper in the paragraph that follows these; I will leave it to you to read the original essay) I will say in his defense that he was a man of his time. I was a freshman in high school when Feynman gave this talk, and although I know I have repressed a great deal of what I heard, this was a very common attitude toward women. Not everyone was as outspoken as Feynman, but the fact that he so clearly articulated his position, and that he was open to revising his opinion of women based on this experience, puts him ahead of many men in mid-20th century America. A plea to young people reading this: do not forget how far we have come! Do not take these gains for granted–anyone reading the news these days must know that women’s rights are under attack even in 2012, and that it would not be difficult to lose hard won gains. When I hear, “I am not a feminist…” I want to ask “What aspects of patriarchy are you especially fond of, then?”

Finally, for me, this story from Feynman reveals, in the words of a great thinker, the deep connection between mathematics and the fiber arts–knitting, weaving, and so forth. Most people, I think, believe that “women’s hobbies” and mathematics are opposite poles: concrete vs. abstract, female vs. male, informal vs. formal, casual vs. professional. Why do I love crocheted hyperbolic planes and, now, argyle socks? They are emblematic of the fact that it just ain’t so!

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2 Comments

Filed under fiber arts, gender, mathematics, science

2 responses to “Richard Feynman and Women’s Invisible Skills

  1. Pingback: Faut-il arrêter de citer Feynman s’il était un gros cochon sexiste ? | Tout se passe comme si

  2. anders

    I am a male and I started some years ago because I had heard that Daina Taimina said that crocheting was the best way to get familiar with hyperbolic planes and I found a crochet hook on the ground. I met my wife because I was showing off a kleinbottle I crocheted and she was impressed by the fact that I was crocheting with a pencil (I’d lost the hook by then). I then went on to learn a lot about other fiber arts because I saw them as a way of making patterns physical.

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