This week had two sets of events for Women in STEM: the theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia, professor at University of Pisa in Italy and soon likely ex-CERN affiliated, decried feminist conspiracies, allegedly scientifically proven female intellectual inferiority and the discrimination against males like himself, in a workshop talk on gender at CERN. That rapidly made international news, and Strumia is now suspended from his CERN job and his €1.9 mn ERC grant is liable to same fate.
The next day after the Strumia scandal, Donna Strickland was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics, first woman in 55 years. The Canadian (who incidentally is probably the only Nobel awardee of last decades not being a full professor) shares the Prize with two men, the US-American Arthur Ashkin and Gérard Mourou, institute director at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris area, France. And the laser optics physicist Mourou is apparently a kind of alpha male who doesn’t waste time on arguing about the alleged science of female inferiority in seminars, like Strumia does. Mourou made it perfectly clear already in a 2013 video what the roles of males and females in physics are.
This is the video.
The clip, titled “Have you seen ELI” (originally available on YouTube) was made by the French CNRS for and together with the ELI Delivery Consortium, which is funded by the EU and EU states with €850 million. Mourou is the coordinator, the main seat of ELI is at the institute he is director of: International Center for Zettawatt-Exawatt Science and Technology (IZEST) at the Ecole Polytechnique. Three other facilities are being built in Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania. A reader alerted me to the video with her tweet, as the world was celebrating Mourou’s Nobel Prize.
The science communication video starts rather pleasantly, with a small boy in his room showing interest in optics. At the end of the 4 minute film, Mourou takes the boy by the hand, leading him to what is probably a promising academic future in optics research. But in between, Mourou and his IZEST adjunct director Jean Paul Chambaret, show that they envision for girls in physics some other function.
Next scene: Professor Mourou is teaching students, a blackboard behind him, and an audience of young people sitting in front, learning. One young woman lowers her eyelids to show Mourou what she wrote on them: “I love ELI”.
Afterwards, the students, both female and male get up and dance. The eyelid messaging is obviously a hommage to some obscure film cliche where a young female student silently signals to her professor that she loves him. A classic French cineastic story probably ensues, of an old git having a invigorating and sexually experimentative affair with a young woman the age of his daughters. Good thing the young woman loves the ELI Consortium here, and not Professor Mourou, but it gets worse.
After an animation of Mourou being a genius who even cured cancer, we see the alpha male arrive at work, in a flashy two-seater BMW convertible. Apparently, to give us a good look at the director’s luxury sports car was important to understand how laser physics are done at ELI.
And then it gets really bad. Mourou and Chambaret dance with a bunch of their young female students. Two of them present their legs and other relevant bits and dance provocatively with the two important men. At the end they even take off their white coats, in the classical striptease-style, all for Mourou and Chambaret.
As I learned, these two ladies were professional dancers (let us hope they were just dancers) specifically recruited to impersonate students in this video. Yet the other young women in the dancing scene, all wearing dark glasses, are students of Mourou’s. One such former student told me she and her friend were approached by Mourou personally about participating in the dance scene, but they refused. I am not sure what is worse: two professional dancers paid to pretend being students who do sexy moves and undress for their professor, or actual students invited to participate in this degrading old men’s erotic fantasy.
One wonders: whom exactly was ELI Consortium seeking to recruit with such video presentation, and what exactly was on offer there for prospective male and female employees?
Back in 2013, Mourou was director at Laboratoire d’Optique Appliqué on the same Ecole Polytechnique campus. As that former student invited to dance for the man told me, the film was shot at the neighbouring Laboratoire pour l’Utilisation des lasers intenses (LULI), as I was informed, in a highly secured lab where one needs a special permit to enter. Or to dance? And again: the young women serving as background dancers for two fake students are real students of Mourou.
Now Mourou has a Nobel Prize and by this virtue he becomes a supreme demi-god above all criticism. You decide if this attitude towards women is OK or not, my comment section is below.
Mourou’s colleague, the theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia on the other hand fell deep because of his attitude to women in science, and will likely lose the grant money and prestige he used to have. He might even lose his academic job. This was what Strumia did:
He gave a talk, on 28 September 2018, as part of 1st Workshop on Energy Theory and Gender, at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research located at Swiss-French border and featuring some of the world’s most powerful particle accelerators. The talk was titled: “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory”, and the audience were largely female early career researchers.
It was a confused rant against women and equality in science, and in one slide Strumia even made clear what his problem was: a woman got a position he applied for. He used cartoons from a notorious misogynistic website, claimed that it is really men who are discriminated against, because, because… they are sent to fight wars where they can get killed.
Strumia insisted science was on his side: to him, bibliometrics prove that men are cited more often than women simply because they are better scientists, and anyway, women are just no good in sciences, that being basic physiology. Here is one of his slides where Strumia invokes science to prove him right and defend him from being accused of “Thoughtcrime according to Minister of Truth and PC Thought Police“:
CERN quickly issued a press release (now updated), distancing themselves from Strumia and his talk. He was presented initially as an “invited scientist”, but in reality Strumia works at CERN since at least 2015, when he received an ERC Advanced Grant of €1.9 mn, of which €1.5 mn were allocated to CERN, the rest to the University of PISA. After CERN declared Strumia as “suspended [..] from any activity at CERN with immediate effect, pending investigation into last week’s event“, ERC announced that they will now decide together with CERN what to do about Strumia’s grant. The University of Pisa, where Strumia is professor, also announced an investigation, including an “eventual Disciplinary Board involvement“.
All this likely happened because CERN, ERC and University of Pisa were overrun by journalists, after a huge Twitter outcry. Big media quickly reported the scandal: BBC, Guardian, Washington Post, basically everyone. When journalists call, research institutions can act very decisively.
What now about that institutionally filmed, official women-degrading dance video with the Nobel Prize winner Mourou, who also happens to preside over a €850 mn research project? When you are a Nobelist, the world dances for you.
Or maybe not. As I was writing this, I was alerted to this Le Monde article, by the fearless journalists David Larousserie and Hervé Morin, who are used to report those French research scandals the authorities prefer to remain buried. Le Monde writes:
“This sophomoric video, shot in 2010, exhumed and revived on Twitter by the German journalist and blogger Leonid Schneider is sure to raise a few eyebrows. CNRS, credited as producer, said that “the direction of the CNRS communication has not been involved in the development of this film, initiated and directed by the researcher and his team from the laboratory. We have been informed after the fact in and have never relayed. “
Update 5.10.2018. This article had quite an impact, so here some updates on the Mourou affair.
A commenter who identified as “a member of the intense-laser-community and CNRS” said:
” As far as I know, the video was financed with money from a (european) grant for the project preparation and “lobbying” phase.”
To that, Allen Weeks, Director General of ELI replied to me:
“I don’t know who paid for the video and I am not disputing if it was paid for with public money. Still, I do know it was not paid for by the ELI Delivery Consortium”.
Motherboard found out this was not the only video of the kind Mourou had made:
“Several people said that Mourou appeared in other videos that have not yet become public. “The ELI project suppressed the distribution of the video for obvious reasons,” one person told Motherboard anonymously out of fear of professional retribution.
“Mourou came to give a lecture in Prague two or three years ago, where he presented [a different video], which had a similar flavor.”
Huffington Post France reported a reaction from Sweden:
“On the eve of the anniversary of the movement #MeToo, the Nobel Committee of the Royal Academy of Sciences has condemned the video this Thursday, Oct. 4, while reiterating its support for Gérard Mourou.
The video “echoed the attitudes that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences does not share,” its general secretary, Göran K. Hansson, told AFP, stressing that the filming took place long ago.
In any event, this does not change the choice of the Academy, and the statutes of the Nobel Prize do not allow to withdraw an awarded prize. “We have honoured the fantastic discoveries and inventions of Professor Mourou (…). No other aspect comes into play. It is not a prize for videos of films, it’s a prize for science.” he added.”
On 5 October, CNRS issued a press release:
“The Ecole Polytechnique, ENSTA and CNRS specify that they have neither ordered nor funded the film.“
Update 6.10.2018. Another reader pointed me to this brand new video of Mourou discussing how he made his Nobel discovery: he was skiing, when he suddenly had a stroke of genius, drove back to the lab where he and his “very good student” Maurice Pessot went to work straight away. No mention of what input Mourou thinks his PhD student (and the other Nobel awardee Strickland) had there.
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