Slack catchers

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman

Turns out Richard Feynman was irresponsible.

Maybe just irrepressible.

Feynman, who earned the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965 for work in quantum electrodynamics, said his success was due, in part, to being irresponsible.

“I invented a myth for myself,” Feynman says in an interview. “I’m irresponsible.”

Feynman explains in the interview, grinning widely, “I’m selfish. I want to do my physics.”

Cal Newport’s recent blog is titled Richard Feynman didn’t win a Nobel responding promptly to e-mails.

And while Feynman died in 1988—long before the raft of email flotsam got anchored to your computer—the metaphor is apt.

It takes skill, guts and a thick skin to make priorities and stick with them.

I’m still learning how to be my own advocate.

Unlike Feynman, if I left emails unanswered I would be considered truly irresponsible.

So I prioritize at the risk of pissing off other folks.

When I don’t respond to emails in 24 hours I’m called unorganized.

When my husband doesn’t respond in 24 hours he’s called busy.

Like Feynman, my male professor colleagues get a wider berth when it comes to follow-through on emails and mentoring students.

But my female colleagues are held to a different standard, where being busy gets translated as being irresponsible.

Feynman acknowledges in the interview that when he prioritizes his own work, someone else in his department takes up the slack.

In my department, the slack-catcher is often someone with less standing and a lower salary with more to lose.

A woman.

Cal Newport’s blog can be found at

The Richard Feynman interview “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” is posted at

Photo from the archives at CalTech


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, ethics, Indian, journalism, native american, native press, Native Science, science, science communication, writing and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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