I think it’s too easy to overcorrect towards ‘Feynman wasn’t that goofy.’ And I think a lot of people are doing that here. It’s contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake. Physics researchers can be very boring. You don’t hear stories about many other famous physicists doing weird things like Feynman. Why are people here so willing to disagree that he was unusual? I really think it’s just status-seeking behavior to say, “nah that’s just a public misconception, real sciencey folks know that Feynman was actually really good at math and wasn’t that weird.”
And there’s a lot of strawmanning as well. Nobody makes the claim that Feynman was spending most of his time goofing around picking locks and asking people weird psych questions. Yet that’s the only thing that I see other comments here arguing against.
Eh, I think I came in a bit too strong trying to argue that even if he was 20% goofing around and thinking oddly, that 20% might me more than current academic slack allows.
I did try to clarify that in a comment in the original blog-post but I do feel like I’ve heard takes of this argument made before.
The biggest update for me are people claiming he actually was a top mathematician in every sense of the word, which might be true and would disprove a big part of my hypothesis, which is that he was a good mathematician, but good in the “top 10k people in the world” sense not in the “top 10 people in the world” sense.
people claiming he actually was a top mathematician in every sense of the word
He did score top 5 in the Putnam in 1939. Whose competitors would be all undergraduates in the U.S. and Canada. It was only the second year the competition was offered, and I don’t know what fraction of top math students actually took it, nor how much Feynman prepared for it relative to his competitors; nor is math contest skill identical to math skill. But, all that said, if we count his contemporaries as those within ±10 years of his age, then this would appear to put him in the top 100 on whatever it was that the Putnam tested.
Edit: There is also a claim that Feynman said, in an interview, that someone who graded the 1939 Putnam (Feynman didn’t name the competition, but it fits the description) told Feynman “Not only were you one of the five [winners], but the gap between you and the other four was sensational.”