The fascination of the private lives of Feynman and other geniuses

Some original content, yay: Everybody has heard of Albert Einstein. Almost everybody has heard of Steven Hawking. A good number of people have heard of Richard Feynman. But if you took a random person off of the street, what could they tell you about these people?

Many might be able to tell you the names of the discoveries made by these people, or other references to them (“Relativity”, “E=MC2”, “black holes”, “Hawking radiation”, “quantum electrodynamics”, etc.), but probably almost nobody would be able to explain what any of these terms actually mean beyond a superficial level.

Instead, it seems that the vast majority of information known about these people relates to their human side. Albert Einstein dropped out of school, and worked with patent filing. He was a womanizer. He has white disheveled hair, and sticks his tongue out. He said something about God not playing with dice. Hawking is always in a wheel chair, has one of those robot voice boxes, and occasionally appears on The Simpsons. Feynman plays bongos, and also loved women and booze. Newton had an apple fall on his head. Etc.

Why do we even care? (I’m asking rhetorically, but see Steven Pinker’s “How the mind works” for a discussion on the evolutionary origins of gossip if you want the answer). While there is some value in reminding ourselves that these people are human, just like us, I find it discouraging and interesting that much more energy is spent (in the forms of book published, blogs posts written, and other forms of discussion made) on the relative trivialities of their private lives than on the actual contributions these people have made for society.

Could it simply be that it’s fashionable amongst intellectuals to discuss Einstein, but, not having the background to make educated statements on his findings, to instead resort to gossip? In the case of Feynman, his writings are particularly accessible to the layperson, so it seems like a great opportunity for the intellectually curious to pick up discussion topics there, but unfortunately Feynman doesn’t have the same brand name recognition that Einstein does.

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