Chief Science Correspondent
In case you missed it, a Nobel laureate made some sexist comments last week. Female scientists took to the internet and fought back.
Tim Hunt is a 72-year-old British scientist who was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2001 for his discovery of cyclins, a class of proteins that play a role in the cell cycle. Until last week, Hunt was an honorary professor at the University College London and a committee member of the Royal Society.
Last Tuesday, Hunt spoke at the 2015 World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, and made a poorly received comment that science laboratories should be segregated by gender. One of the more memorable quotes from his speech: "Three things happen when (women) are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry."
"Three things happen when (women) are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry."
The photos were posted to highlight the ridiculousness of Hunt's comment.
I may be willing to grant Hunt the benefit of the doubt. He may have not intended to devalue women as a mere distraction. His comments were an extreme generalization. But workplace romances do develop, as much in science as any other field. I'm sure that at some point in time, a female scientist has cried in the laboratory (although of course Hunt neglected to mention that men are not immune to emotional outbursts either).
We are all humans. We occasionally experience emotions and desires. Our job is to control them. Hunt, however, seems to think that this challenge is insurmountable, suggesting that research institutes should implement single sex laboratories. Hunt may have been joking, but his intention was not fully clear.
Ironically I learned of Hunt's comments shortly after watching Virus, a charmingly awful 1980 movie about a worldwide epidemic that wipes nearly all of man(and woman)kind from the planet, leaving only the scientists and workers stationed in Antarctica, where the cold climate prevented the virus from spreading. I wanted to see this movie because Palmer Station, the research base where I am currently stationed for field research, is featured prominently in the film.
Why is this relevant to the Hunt scandal? In Virus, there are 800 men at Palmer, and only eight women (in reality, our maximum population is only 44 and now the gender ratio is not quite as skewed). Within days of learning of the viral outbreak, a woman at Palmer is raped. The station's council, which includes one woman, quickly decides that the women of Palmer are necessary to satiate the inherent sexual needs of the men. A sort of calling card system is set up in which the men are granted appointments with the women.
This wasn't a major part of the film's plot, and the details are simply briefly skimmed over. Frankly I found it incredibly disturbing, especially considering that the women appeared to have no say in the implementation of this new world order. If it was supposed to be amusing, I couldn't find the humor. These eight women were, presumably, scientists. Yet once crisis hit these women were stripped of their intellectual merit, simply becoming a source of physical pleasure for the busy, deprived male scientists.
I'm fairly confident, or at least hopeful, that this scenario would play out differently in real life. But I think it speaks to Hunt's implication that a woman's attractiveness and feminine traits detract from her value as a scientist.
I would hope that this statement is ridiculous, simply the remnant of a long-forgotten bad movie. But Hunt's comments demonstrate that, whether he was joking or serious, some people continue to view female scientists as an inherent distraction in the laboratory.
Yet laboratory romances do not always doom scientists to unproductivity. Take 2014 Nobel laureates May-Britt and Edvard Moser, for instance. They are one of the many scientist couples who have made great achievements in science through collaboration. My Ph.D. advisor even met her husband while doing field research in Antarctica.
Women will remain an important part of science for as long as science exists. And men and women will continue to work together; despite Hunt's suggestions, co-ed laboratories will not be abolished anytime soon. It is unfortunate that Hunt seems to have failed to recognize the incredible achievements that men and women have achieved in science - not apart, but together.