Credit: Sam Weber
Late last year, researchers in England published a study purporting to establish a link between creative output and number of sexual partners. As the lead author (under)stated, “Creative people are often considered to be very attractive and get lots of attention as a result.”
The theoretical physicists of the 20th century were no exception. Promiscuous chasers by profession, physicists ever-pursue objects that lie partially hidden to the immediate senses, but are evidently there behind nature’s many layers. The best physicists are able to tease a peek beneath all that partially-covered exterior, as any pickup artist would: with a mix of cleverness and straightforward arrogance. This is hardly just simple metaphor; for many of the greatest physicists, this libertine modus operandi also fueled their private lives.
Schrödinger, Curie, Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer…the finest names of pre-Cold War 20th-century physics, some of whom gave us the most concise theories ever posited, form a roster of lamentable philanderers. Albert Einstein was completely “given to flirtation” and had legions of affairs. Caltech professor and bestselling raconteur Richard Feynman was probably the only Nobel Prize winner to befriend porn stars, claim a foolproof manner for bedding women and do his calculations on napkins in strip clubs. And it wasn’t just the guys: Marie Curie was relentlessly hounded by the press for seducing away her late-husband’s former student from his wife and kids.
“Libertines, both male and female, have always been around in math and physics,” says Jennifer Ouellette, who writes on physics history and is associate editor of the American Physical Society’s newsletter. Yet today, while physicists still spend day and night chasing nature, the era of chasing skirts — or knickers—seems to have passed. Where have all the physics playb—er, sociable persons gone?
Between the world wars, physicists hunted the big ideas and had the big personalities—and sex drives—to match. They worked and played under a unique confluence of circumstance. The sexual norms of the time, their status, the sexiness of their projects and achievements all conspired to make the top physicists supremely desirable.
The most shameless cad of the group was Richard Feynman. When he once nearly crashed his car while eyeing a passing beauty, his only excuse was, “I only see the women, the rest is all a blur.” He even kept a picture in his office of one acquaintance, buxom adult film star Candi Samples, signed, “To Big Dick, Love from Candi.”
Remarkably, some physicists’ trysts seem to have actually led to physical insight: While once floundering on a problem, Erwin Schrödinger shacked up in an alpine villa for an extended holiday with “an old girlfriend” and, in the “late erotic outburst” that followed, produced the eponymous equation that would net him the Nobel.
At the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos, the assembled brain trust was as hard-partying as a troop of college kids on spring break. Weekends with the physicists were “big and brassy,” replete with poker and booze. They played so hard that the program tried to quarantine the women’s dorms; as one boss euphemized, “The girls had been doing a flourishing business of requiting the needs of our young men.” So many babies resulted that Robert Oppenheimer (or his boss, nobody’s really sure), himself having tried to run off with the wife of Linus Pauling and bed the wife of another colleague, was told to halt the extracurricular activities. (Oppenheimer didn’t.)
So what’s happened since? Not to bemoan the loss of machismo, but today’s physicists seem to lack that same rat-pack panache that old-school physicists brought to the blackboard. Considering the unparalleled prestige that the Atomic Era physicists enjoyed, it’s hardly astonishing that sexual power plays —like those that often transpire between an executive and assistant, or even a president and an intern —could have resulted. And though modern theoreticians still pursue big ideas, their intellectual forebears revealed so many of nature’s broad physical features that, now, only the finer areas are left to explore.
Ouellette points to another possible explanation: “This stuff still goes on, we just don’t hear about it. The history books on the great physics personalities of the late 20th century have yet to be written.” She points to a famous professor whom “everyone knows ditched” one woman for another: “it’s gossiped about, but you never read about it [because] the science is what really matters.” There’s also Stephen Hawking, whose affair was detailed in the British tabloid. Perhaps there are others.
And perhaps, with the new Large Hadron Collider ready to go online next year—if physics is now “just another discipline,” as Nature recently editorialized—its time will come again. In the meantime, it might help to remember Richard Feynman’s truth-laden maxim, “Physics is like sex: Sure, it may give some practical results but that’s not why we do it.”
Originally published February 28, 2006