After keeping silent on the matter, I am stimulated to discuss it after a BuzzFeed article exposed several cases of alleged sexual harassment and related inappropriate behavior by world-class cosmologist-cum-science-pop-guy-cum-skeptic Lawrence Krauss. Plus, yesterday was international women's day, and I never miss a chance to miss a deadline.
I met Lawrence during a cosmology conference at Imperial College in 2008, and was impressed by his wit and oral skills. After that brief encounter, I continued to follow his increasingly popular endeavours, his books, the doomsday clock, and generally enjoyed his thorough bashing of religious fanatics and other dumbos. I thought to myself, "we need more guys like him around - in TV shows we always send scientists who cannot cope with the bullshit of the other guy, be that a charlatan or a religious fanatic or a new Uri Geller". Lawrence does a great job and he has been a great communicator. Go science!
In the meantime, the #MeToo movement became a thing. Now, before I tell you what I think of the Krauss affair, I need to warn you: you are reading the blog of a writer of inappropriate comments (about physics before anything else, but anyway). In fact, longtime followers of this blog (and its previous instantiation at wordpress) know I once suffered the attack of some colleagues who thought that my reporting of the physical appearance of Lisa Randall during a CERN colloquium was inappropriate. Here is what I wrote in an introductory paragraph of that post, which of course was otherwise about physics (the physics of black holes and quantum gravity):
"[...] If you allow a slip to inappropriate comments, Lisa Randall is notoriously not only an esteemed and well-known theorist, but also a quite attractive woman – a powerful mix, capable of turning to jello the knees of most men. Today she wore a nice black and white dress which left her shoulders and arms exposed, a necklace of mother-of-pearl, and a wide-band silver bracelet with colored stones. Her hair was collected in a pony tail. She looked nice and fit – for some reason it made me think she probably works out on a regular basis. Lisa talked in front of a large audience – I could count about 150 heads – which packed the auditorium. She was introduced by the convener by what must have been the shortest introduction in the history of theoretical seminars ever, something like:
“Hre’s Lisa, she’ll tlk ’bout bloles quagity”.
I’m serious. Hilarious, but an odd note if combined with the fact that, despite my attempt at an initial applause, the audience stood quite still. She balked not, and started to talk with no further ado."
I thoroughly enjoyed the resulting heated discussions, the media coverage of the episode (yes there was quite some, after Sean Carroll picked the matter up in his own blog and the thing escalated) and the exchange of opinions on the matter of whether it harms the climate to discuss the physical appearance of a female speaker (I do think it may, but I claim freedom of speech is more important if things remain inoffensive). Summing it up, I do believe that my report was innocuous. And writing a blog would be utterly boring if one could not express oneself in it. Anyway, if I got away something from that episode is that boy-oh-boy are people sensitive about this subject nowadays.
So, now that I warned you about the sexist male that's within me (hint: I actually consider myself a die-hard feminist in comparison to 95% of my colleagues, but that's a biased sample as I work in Italy), let me talk about #MeToo and the Krauss affair. Overall, I think it is great that there is an uprising against sexual violence, harassment, humiliation, men's arrogance, inappropriate behavior, and almost all the related exploitation of power that men operate against women in all settings and at all levels of society. We need to raise awareness on the matter if we want to eradicate the phenomenon. And regardless of how tall an order that goal is, I see progress wherever I turn. But progress on societal changes is notoriously slow, so people who are not patient may feel too little is being done. Be patient! Humanity is evolving!
Maybe unsurprisingly given my introduction about the Randall episode, I am much warmer about condemning verbal and written "inappropriateness", when it is not compounded by a inequality of role or power. That is to say: if my blog comment rather than about a Lisa Randall, who's a colleague (and more powerful and influential than I am), had been about a lower-rank person, say a post-doc, I myself would have itched reading it. Otherwise, freedom of speech and expression must in my opinion take precedence, and if people sometimes get offended, so be it. I do not appreciate the trigger warning philosophy. People get hurt by society in every way, not just by having to listen to comments that put them ill-at-ease. The real world is a hard place, and there's no point in my opinion in watching one's language in fear of raising negative feelings. I, for one, wouldn't want to live in a world where everybody watched their language so much that you wouldn't be able to discern what they really think.
But again I am divagating. So, to summarize I think the #MeToo movement is an important, positive reaction to a sickness we carry along in our society and which we must try to heal, but we have to be careful to not overdo it, suppressing other freedoms in the process.
That said, what do I think about Krauss?
I did read the Buzzfeed article, and I now also read his reaction, which appeared with quite some delay, as Krauss explains he was advised to not react immediately to the allegations he was subjected to. And I have to say I give him for now the benefit of doubt. Half of the allegations moved against him would be enough for me to condemn somebody in a less visible position, at least until the matter is clarified and verdicts are spelt. But I do see that he is (was) a very visible target, and an easy one, for a smear campaign.
I can totally see how attractive it can be to sow together a few stories, collected here and there, and build a case against him. For he is a very annoying person to have to reckon with, if you are a religious fanatic or a science hater (TM Lubos Motl). I can imagine that a similar article to the one published by Buzzfeed could have been written about most of Krauss' male colleagues, given some investigations and a little creativity.
Or perhaps not, as investigations of that kind are made much easier by the visibility of the character they are aimed at: everybody has a Krauss story to tell, me included! My story of inappropriate behavior of LK comes from the after-dinner talk he gave to a selected few participants to that 2008 conference, collected in a guest house of Imperial College after a nice dinner together. He gave an entertaining speech, and at some point he made a joke about none less than the Queen of England! Bad guy Krauss, bad! I now don't recall the boundaries (there was no sex involved and the joke was entirely inoffensive, except maybe for brits), but with some encouragement I could perhaps make up some detail to make it more spicy. Who knows. Perhaps Krauss touched his left nipple while he was talking about the Queen?
See, I hope you can continue to see things as grey as they are, in a world where simple-minded folks would like to paint everything black or white. And for some reason I need to quote Lubos again today, to finish this piece:
"And that's the memo".
Tommaso Dorigo is an experimental particle physicist who works for the INFN at the University of Padova, and collaborates with the CMS experiment at the CERN LHC. He coordinates the European network AMVA4NewPhysics as well as research in accelerator-based physics for INFN-Padova, and is an editor of the journal Reviews in Physics. In 2016 Dorigo published the book “Anomaly! Collider physics and the quest for new phenomena at Fermilab”. You can get a copy of the book on Amazon.