Tim Hunt: treated worse than a Nazi

Posted: June 24, 2015 in Uncategorized
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On a breezy December morning in 1903, humanity witnessed the first heavier-than-air manned flight. Less than 70 years later, our species made its debut on the moon.

Photo: Paloma Baytelman  (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

Tim Hunt. Photo: Paloma Baytelman (www.flickr.com/palomabaytelman)

This prodigious progress – or giant leap, if you will – was owed in no small part[1] to a former Nazi, whose wartime missile programme led to the deaths of 21,000 people.

And while the extent of Wernher von Braun’s belief in National Socalism is debatable, that he was a Sturmbannführer in the SS – and had blood on his hands – is undeniable.

Despite this, the rocket scientist was never punished[2]. Right or wrong, he was left to get on with his work. No such luck for the scientist who made a sexist joke.

Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize winner, was frogmarched out of his roles at UCL and the European Research Council for his remarks about women in the lab.

To sum them up: girls in the lab are distracting, they fall in love with you, you fall in love with them and they cry when criticised. Stupid, yes, but worth sacking someone over?

In any case, his dismissal was applauded by a virtual mob which then turned its anger on the Royal Society, of which Hunt remains – for however long – a fellow.

Hunt is, of course, not the first scientist to fall victim to this mob. Tuning in for an update on the Philae comet landing last year, I watched astounded as a physicist broke down in tears halfway through the briefing, grovelling his apologies.

Wondering what mistake could have elicited such a reaction, I expected some careless blunder on his part had endangered the whole decade-long mission. Not so.

The scientist, Dr Matt Taylor, had worn a shirt adorned with women in risqué dress – a birthday gift he received from a friend. Taylor and she received a torrent of abuse over the “sexist” garb.

Even if one accepts some wrongdoing here, the fact remains that history is littered with people of great achievement, but poor judgement.

Richard Wagner was a notorious anti-semite, Eric Clapton drunkenly threw around the terms “wog” and “coon”, but their music is no less moving for it.

One doesn’t have to agree with Clapton on immigration, or Hunt on gender issues, in order to accept that they might make great contributions to music or science.

Their talent doesn’t put them above censure, true, still it is increasingly accepted that those at the forefront of any field must have the preferred opinions in every field.

Meanwhile, the extent to which off-the-cuff remarks are assumed to be one’s fully-formed opinion is growing.

Cambridge professors Dame Athene Donald and Ottoline Leyser defended Hunt’s attitude towards women in science, yet these views – the views of women who worked with him – were ignored in favour of his rash remarks.

This is to be expected in the transient world of social media, but the decision to give someone the boot is one with a lasting effect on their life and work, and deserves more consideration.

In any case, there is a difference between word and deed, and the line is being blurred. When people are sacked for holding an unpopular opinion, it shouldn’t matter what that opinion is for us to be concerned.

Once the principle is established we all become prisoners of fortune, because the measure of acceptability can change, leaving you in the firing line.

[1] Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher Von Braun, by Bob Ward, giving view of Apollo Program director Sam Phillips on p.167
[2] Making it in America: A Sourcebook on Eminent Ethnic Americans, by Elliott Robert Barkan, p. 396


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