Why are physicists sometimes arrogant to outsiders?

Robert P Crease tells why, here, in this must-read piece:

In my own encounter with Feynman – which, incidentally, is recounted in the epilogue to James Gleick’s biography Genius – I asked him questions about episodes of his intellectual development. Feynman’s replies were direct, but accompanied by intense curiosity about why I was asking; he sought to learn. Then I asked him about progress in science. This did not interest him. A physiological change in his face told me that I had abruptly gone from scholar to scribbler.

All at once he grew angry, stood up, and began shouting. “It’s a dumb question,” he yelled, “I don’t know how to answer it. Cancel everything I said!” He slammed his fist into the mountains of papers on his desk, then strode to the door. “It’s all so stupid. All of these interviews are always so damned useless.” He walked down the corridor, shouting: “It’s goddamned useless to talk about these things! It’s a complete waste of time! The history of these things is nonsense! You’re trying to make something difficult and complicated out of something that’s simple and beautiful!”

In that instant, witnessing his curiosity evaporate, I realized this had nothing to do with me, nor with contempt for outsiders, nor with scorn for history. Rather, it had everything to do with Feynman’s absorption in his own work – the same kind of absorption that made him a great physicist.

By the way, there is an interesting story about S Chandrashekher too in that piece — one that you don’t get to see in the pages of, say, Current Science:

Horgan once flew to Chicago for a prearranged interview with the late astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who shared the 1983 Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical work on the structure and evolution of stars.Chandrasekhar, who was then writing a book on Newton’s Principia, demanded to know Horgan’s purpose. Horgan replied that he was writing a two-page profile about Chandrasekhar and his project.

“What!” the Nobel laureate hollered, ordering Horgan out. “You think that you can summarize Homer’s Odyssey in two pages? You think that you can write about the Sistine Chapel in two pages?” Horgan laughed nervously, wondering if this was a joke. It was not. Chandrasekhar again demanded he leave.

A University of Chicago public-relations aide eventually coaxed Chandrasekhar to stop the bullying and go through with the interview – but afterwards Chandrasekhar insisted that Horgan should not print anything about their meeting. Horgan, within his rights, did so anyway, penning a delicate, toned-down description of the encounter.

Horgan’s book, The End of Science, is full of such stories.

Link via John Hawks


One Response to “Why are physicists sometimes arrogant to outsiders?”

  1. raj Says:

    Conceited fellows, these scientists. But then the likes of Feynman, Chandrashekar had earned the right to be conceited, I guess.

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