Alessandro Strumia’s CERN Talk


Alessandro Strumia (Professor of Physics at Pisa University)

Oh dear, Professor Strumia has got himself into a spot of bother. No doubt you’ve heard. The good professor (oops, sorry, bad professor – very, very bad physics professor) gave a talk at CERN claiming men were being disadvantaged in physics, not women. Shocking stuff, you must agree. No – you must agree. He was immediately dismissed from CERN (though I don’t know about his position at the University of Pisa). The slides of his talk were immediately deleted from the CERN servers.

You’d think the chaps (and chapesses, of course) at CERN would know the internet is forever, what with their having invented it an’ all. I’ve saved his slides for posterity here.

The slides are written in a type of physics-joke terminology, making references to fashionable physics theories. I’m not about to try to explain what spontaneously broken symmetries are, or the significance of terms like M-theory. Suffice it to say that he establishes himself as a nerd of the physics variety. He seems to have declared himself a conservative, too. Clearly, he was intent on self-destruction.

The talk was delivered during a conference on 28th September 2018 specifically about gender in high energy physics. So, Strumia’s talk was relevant. However, it would appear that this was the sort of conference at which only one opinion was ever going to be acceptable. To be fair (someone has to be) it might have been possible to broach the main subject matter of Strumia’s talk without actually being kicked off the site – perhaps escaping with merely being ostracised and spat at a little. But, whilst I didn’t hear him speak, I can imagine his first few slides would have been delivered in full-on physicist-Aspie bluntness.

A pity, really. Perhaps an opportunity lost – though maybe it’s just what he wanted. And I could guess that the motivation might have been frustration – the frustration born of decades of male physicists being chastised for their sexism and being accused of disadvantaging female physicists at every turn. If so, it is surely a frustration – even a concealed anger – which many male physicists must share by now. There are just so many decades of unjustified blame one can absorb.

“Physics was invented and built by men” is the quote which the press are mostly using. You’d have to be very Asperger indeed not to anticipate flack from that one. “Highly offensive” came the chorus. Well, obviously. Is it true, though? Well, decreasingly so since the mid-twentieth century. But as a very good approximation before that you can’t argue with it, albeit with very notable exceptions.

The obvious exception is Madame Curie, whom Strumia notes in his talk – she of the two Nobel prizes. But the No.1 female physicist for me – by a country mile – is Emmy Noether (even though she was strictly a mathematician, and equally notable in that capacity). Noether’s Theorem is the most stunning theorem in the whole of mathematical physics. For God’s sake don’t tell the feminists. We’ll never hear the end of it. Especially the bit about having to lecture at Erlangen without pay and at Gottingen under the name David Hilbert. Shh! Quiet!

Mary Somerville is worth a mention, though I struggle to think of a discovery to attach to her name (no doubt someone will remind me). She was one of those to speculated about the existence of Neptune before it had been observed, but she is not the one usually credited with Neptune’s theoretical prediction (several men competing for that honour).

There were a number of female astronomers, of which Caroline Herschel (sister and assistant of William) is noteworthy, though only as an observer not a theoretician. She was an accomplished observer though, having been brought up in the art by her brother. She bagged eight comets, using a telescope specially built for her by her brother, plus several nebulae which were not in the existing catalogues. There seems to be a mini tradition of sister-astronomers, another one being Sophia Brahe, though she may have been only Tycho’s assistant rather than an observer in her own right – history does not record.

Of all the stories of female scientists being diddled out of their just recognition by the patriarchy, that of Lise Meitner is the most valid. Co-discoverer with Otto Hahn of nuclear fission, only Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner has a far greater claim to unjustified neglect than the much vaunted Rosalind Franklin, though one must be cautious about assuming that sex was the reason. A great many contributors to discoveries fail to win Nobels which are awarded instead to others – and most of these also-rans are men. And as for Mileva Einstein-Maric, the stories about her contributions to relativity are preposterous nonsense. Like Emmy Noether, Meitner’s principle misfortune was not so much being female as being Jewish in Nazi Germany, from which both of them had to flee in the 1930s. Both women received plentiful accolades in their later careers, however.

After the middle of the twentieth century, female physicists become more plentiful – and I’m not going to attempt any summary of that.

But back at CERN…

What hasn’t surfaced in the press is that one of the things Strumia had been doing at CERN is developing a novel algorithm for assessing scientific achievement based on citation analysis. The substantive part of his talk was based on this work, which (I guess) deserved serious consideration. He also quoted some familiar results from Swedish studies on gender and career choice, which undoubtedly are relevant to the subject matter of the conference. I take some delight in quoting Wikipedia – if only because I suspect this quote will not remain there long…*

‘Strumia has complained that science is “becoming sexist against men“. Jessica Wade, scientist at Imperial College, London has rebuked Strumia’s claims, saying they have “long been discredited”. However, Tom Whipple has recently contested claims like those made by Wade, saying that recent evidence “is a challenge to one prominent stream of feminist theory, according to which almost all the differences between the sexes come from cultural training and social norms“. Steve Stewart-Williams, a scientist at University of Nottingham, said that “there was now too much evidence of this effect to consider it a fluke“.’

*As of 7th October, 4 days after writing this article, the above Wiki has been removed.

What Whipple and Stewart-Williams are referring to here is the so-called gender paradox in careers: the more gender equal a society, the greater the degree of gender segregation in employment. Of course, you have to believe in social constructivism to regard this as a paradox. For the rest of us (i.e., most of us) it is entirely unsurprising that men and women, given sufficient freedom, will gravitate to different occupations by choice, simply due to innate differences in preference. In contrast, where there is less freedom and greater economic pressure, you will tend to get (say) a greater proportion of women engineers – simply because financial considerations oblige women to enter professions which pay, rather than occupations motivated more by personal preference. I dare say that Chinese women are not intrinsically more interested in engineering than western women: they just need the cash and it isn’t so readily available in Chinese social science research.

We’ve had the usual predictable commentary on the Strumia affair. In the Telegraph, Lindsay Nicholson has a piece titled, “Physics does have a women problem – and it’s not rocket science to work out why”. There is nothing in the article to justify the claim that physics does have a woman problem, and so “working out why” does not even arise. This is a really cheap trick. Unless you have your wits about you, the message conveyed by the title sticks – despite it being given no substance by the article itself.

The most amusing thing about the article is that is provides an illustration of the issue of gender preference. Lindsay Nicholson herself took astrophysics at university (apparently to annoy the nuns at her convent school). She declares herself to have been of middling ability – until she discovered “the joys of the student newspaper – and the union bar”. Fair enough, but she also says she was offered several jobs, at least one in a technical field (as a rocket scientist, no less). But she preferred to become a journalist. Surprise, surprise. Then she goes on to lament the continuing low percentage of women in science. Who is the more responsible for that: she or I?  (Women are the majority of pure science students, by the way).

Nicholson writes,

“Although I wasn’t the best in my class at University College London – that honour went to an absurdly tall skinny boy who couldn’t make eye contact. I wasn’t the worst either – that was a rugby player who later switched to engineering.”

I am offended! Offended, I say! Who would not be offended by her outrageous appeal to the stereotype of the Asperger-nerd gawky male physicist. Too easy a target from the Olympian heights of her female glamour and fine social adjustment. And is it just me – or is she assuming that we will understand the rugby player in question to have been male? Shocking!

Nicholson ends with these two remarkable claims,

“The definition of physics is that it is the science of measurement”

Err, no it isn’t. The science of measurement is called metrology. Ye Gods, what dork could possibly think that that was an adequate definition of physics?

“Professor Strumia – as a physicist – should remember that the scientific aptitude of the male versus the female brain is not something that can be objectively measured”

That’s a big claim, and probably false. It’s almost a denial of the existence of an objective psychology. Psychologists – over to you to defend your discipline.

But all this is beside the point. Nicholson’s title stated that physics does have a woman problem – but then failed to address the matter at all. So, let’s do so. It just so happened that the same day the Alessandro Strumia affair broke, this month’s Physics World flopped through my letterbox. It’s the 30th anniversary edition of the Institute of Physics’ house journal, though that’s of no great relevance. Here to hand, then, is a ready exemplar of the woman problem in physics. Let’s just take a look at how the male-monopoly of Physics World manifests the patriarchy at its most blatantly misogynistic. Let’s see how women are ignored.

Firstly, here are all the pictures of people which occur in the magazine (both in ads and articles),

I make the final score 14 photos of men and 17 of women. Not a bad effort for a subject which is about 85% male – if your objective is to redress the imbalance, that is.

I’ve left out those little inset pictures of authors that you sometimes get. In that context note that 12 authors were men and just 5 were women. Shocking! Something must be done! (Though why momentarily escapes me).

The editorial staff is a different matter: 2 men and 4 women. Here they are,

I also omitted a couple of black & white photos of men because these were from an article (by Margaret Harris) about ads as they were 30 years ago and how they have changed – so these images would be misleading as regards the present day.

The photos in the article about graduate careers in physics were: 3 women and 2 non-white men.

One of the women pictured above is the President of the Institute of Physics, by the way.

The current president of CERN is Professor Agnieszka Zalewska, pictured below.

Other things of note in this issue of Physics World include two articles on diversity in physics, particularly as regards women in physics, occupying a whole page.

Most of another page was devoted to Jocelyn Bell-Burnett’s donation of her $3M prize money to create new graduate studentships for under-represented groups in physics. One presumes this will include women particularly, given Jocelyn Bell’s being passed over for the Nobel prize for the discovery of pulsars (another genuine grievance, I think).

The president of the Institute of Physics (Julia Higgins) had a three-page article reviewing how physics has changed over the last 30 years. Higgins was one of those responsible for setting up the Athena project in the 1990s. Most of the article does not concern gender, but a great deal did, including positive action. She’s in favour. Examples: if a shortlist does not contain women – go back and put some in. And this admission: “If you look at nominations for fellowship of the Royal Society, we do work proactively to make sure women get nominated”. The sexism from which she reports having suffered were two instances of being mistaken for a secretary. The sexism to which she confesses is a persistent preferencing in hiring/advancement based on sex. Is she more sinning or sinned against?

The letters page is of interest also. It’s not a normal letters page, though. It’s a hand picked selection of the most witty or pithy letters over the last 30 years. The correspondents names indicate 33 men, 3 women and one indeterminate. One of the women co-authored a letter with a man concerning a (whimsical) suggestion for particle nomenclature. Their affiliations were schools of psychology and English. One of the other women correspondents wrote to make reference to an article on Women In Physics and to complain about an invitation to a college reunion which was extended also to her wife. The last woman correspondent wrote to inform us that Brian Cox was not on TV because he knows physics but because he’s pretty (which she finds distracting, poor thing). Change that to any female TV presenter and see if such a letter would get published – let alone chosen as one of the best letters in 30 years. Double standards? Yep.

One issue of Physics World hardly constitutes a scientific study, though I can confirm there is nothing unusual about the issue in question (apart from being the 30th anniversary issue). So you can ask yourself which of the following two propositions seems best to fit the evidence from Physics World,

  • That physics is a misogynistic institution which neglects to portray women in physics and does little to encourage women in physics, or,
  • That physics as an institution bends over backwards to include women in physics and does an enormous amount to neutralise any adverse stereotyping.

The latter is the case, of course, and has been for decades. The announcement yesterday that Donna Strickland is one of those nominated for the 2018 Nobel prize in physics is just another indication. It has been decades since any physicist or engineer could use the male pronoun in print. For some of us it has been a lifetime of this accommodation, but without the accusations of discrimination ever letting up – in fact they have only become worse. The invention of “unconscious bias” is a clever ruse to ensure you can have no escape from the endless blame, whatever you think, whatever you say, and however you behave.

After decades of ceaseless unjustified blaming of men who could do no more than they were doing, frustration and resentment becomes inevitable. Alessandro Strumia’s approach may have been cack-handed. And the price paid for this is that he has gifted the prevailing gender narrative with more fuel for its protestations of offence and endemic misogyny. Unfortunately, there is scant evidence that a more diplomatic approach would be more effective. So those of us who dissent from the approved perspective of perpetual male privilege are forbidden from speaking at all. The frustration, resentment and anger can only fester in increasingly disgusted silence. This is unhealthy.

But there is worse. In all those decades there has been absolutely no reciprocation. I covered this as regards education in STEM v Teaching nearly four years ago. Men are increasingly aware of the disadvantage to their own sex, including in matters of employment (though this is by no means the worst area). Women dominate in many areas of employment, including many professions. Women dominate in virtually all areas which deal with people rather than things, including education, healthcare and social work. And males are disadvantaged in education, healthcare and issues addressed by social workers. It’s about time the juxtaposition of those two observations was promoted to a position of political prominence.

The endless castigation of the institutions of physics and engineering needs to stop. There is nothing further that men can do to “assist” women in these areas. Further protestations will only feed increasing resentment and generate more Alessandro Strumias. In contrast, there is a great deal that women can, and must, do to assist men in other areas – because, so far, they have done nothing. There has been no recognition that reciprocation is required. The spotlight of criticism needs to be turned upon the gendered aspects of people-oriented sectors. The partisan double standards which prevail at present are now being perceived – and resented – by an increasing number of people, of both sexes. But a situation has been cultivated in which it is forbidden, on pain of ostracism or sacking, from expressing the resulting anger and disgust at the approved hypocrisy. And this unfortunate social situation is amplified by the opportunistic purveyors of a poisonously divisive politics.

7 thoughts on “Alessandro Strumia’s CERN Talk

  1. Douglas Milnes

    It is very worrying that – even if Professor Srumia was incorrect – the entire subject he raises has been deemed off-limits. If feminists (or scientists, for that matter) could put forward alternate argument to prove the case differently, that is what we might expect of a scientific body. But if a scientific body actually bans free speech, we are already at that point when Lysenkoism can run riot through common sense.

    Reply
  2. AJ

    I qucikly viewed the CENR slides yesterday and the most significant point is that his citation analysis gave evidence of bias towards women and not against them. His slides were quiet nerdy with his talk of evidence for and aganst a discrete symmetry but I did not see this purely as a joke but a message that the question of whether a gender bias existed should be analysed in the same way as any other scientific question.

    I disagree about Jocelyn Bell-Burnett having a genuine greivance and it appears she also did not think she should have received a nobel. I may be biased as Antony Hewish was one of my lecturers at Cambridge. Firstly all of the research concerned was very much under his detailled supervision and direction. She herself said ‘”I believe it would demean Nobel Prizes if they were awarded to research students, except in very exceptional cases, and I do not believe this is one of them.”
    Secondly there are many many men who have been overlooked with far stronger cases Fred Hoyle for nucleosynthesis for example.

    Reply
    1. William Collins Post author

      I was also lectured by Hewish at Cambridge – in fact I was at such a lecture on the day the Nobel was announced – he was late into the lecture hall, not surprisingly. I have read those remarks by Jocelyn Bell. There is something in the PhD student excuse, perhaps – but my understanding (and I really haven’t researched it properly) is that she had to do a great deal to persuade Hewish that the “LGM” was not noise. I don’t know who first came up with the rotating neutron star explanation, though. It may not have helped her case that she was no longer at Cambridge when the Nobel was awarded

      I absolutely agree about Hoyle, though. The prediction of the C[02+] resonance to get the triple alpha reaction to go was a stunner. And more generally – a point I make in the article – there are innumerable people, mostly men, who DIDN’T get the Nobel prize but who could put forward some sort of case of having contributed. Invariably no one raises the case for neglected men, who remain unknown to the public. People who complain that Vera Rubin was not sufficiently recognised have generally never heard of Kent Ford, with whom she co-authored all her major papers (see http://empathygap.uk/?p=468)

      Reply
      1. AJ

        It is difficult because any web search on the subject of Jocelyn Bell is swamped by articles arguing she was excluded from a nobel prize on sexist grounds without any actual discussion of the merits of the case. My believe based on discussions which are so long ago that I have forgotten the location or other participants is aligned to yours that she argued early for an extraterrestial source and he constantly challenged her to provide evidence to exclude terrestial sources. This to me is not evidence that she the brilliant student had to persuade a reluctant older and conservative man but that he was making sure that the research was performed properly and to a high standard excluding alternative explanations. I understood that the theoretical model of rotating neutron stars was entirely his with her contribution being experimental. I am not sure because my memory may be wrong as may have been the sources at the time.

        What I am certain of is that if there was any bias it was not sexism but simply the bias of a senior scientist receiving credit to a greater extent than those working for him. If she had been a male research student I do not believe that it would have been remembered or considered remarkable that they were not awarded the prize. It would simply be a footnote of scientific history.

        Reply
  3. Mike Buchanan

    Thanks, excellent as always. Just one point, which I think you covered in your post about Rosalind Franklin. By the time Crick and Watson were awarded their joint Nobel prizes, Franklin was dead. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. The inescapable conclusion is that the patriarchy waited until Franklin had died before awarding the prizes for the discover of DNA. Or maybe the patriarchy killed her, because as we know patriarchs can kill without facing consequences.

    Reply
    1. William Collins Post author

      Franklin was indeed dead by the time the Nobel was awarded, so we cannot know if she would have shared the prize had she lived. By way of confirming the depth of my depravity, I believe the patriarchy didn’t come into it at all.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *