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CERN suspends top scientist after he says physics was invented by men

An Italian scientist has been suspended by one of the world's top leading nuclear research centres because he said "physics was invented and built by men" who are now being discriminated against.

Published: October 2, 2018, 9:04 am

    In his presentation Professor Alessandro Strumia said male scientists rather than female scientists were suffering from discrimination based on ideology rather than merit. He said physics was “invented and built by men, it’s not by invitation”.

    According to Strumia, he had been overlooked for a position in favour of a female applicant. He said anyone who spoke out against this discrimination has been attacked, censored or risked losing their job. “I like physics and science because everyone can do what they want. I don’t like it when there’s social engineering to decide how many men, women and categories there should be,” he told the Guardian.

    Professor Strumia. CERN

    Strumia, a physicist of the University of Pisa, was suspended for “personal lack of respect” he allegedly displayed during his talk at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research.

    CERN’s management on Monday met to discuss its future relationship with Professor Strumia and after their meeting issued a statement suspending Strumia with immediate effect pending an investigation for his “unacceptable” presentation.

    CERN expressed “shock” at the “highly offensive” comments made by Professor Strumia in a statement.

    During Strumia’s presentation, he talked about whether Physics was “a community of interest, optimised to understand nature”. His detractors claim he has “ignored data and references to recent studies, particularly those related to gender issues in STEM”.

    Arnaud Marsollier, spokesman for CERN, said: “CERN considers the presentation delivered by an invited scientist during a workshop as highly offensive and supports the many members of the community that have expressed their indignation.”

    “The [scientific] community is in shock,” Marsollier told The Telegraph. “We know physics is dominated by males. This workshop was organised to make progress and that’s why we find it so shocking. We feel it should not happen in future.”

    In the European scientific community, for every one woman, there are two men.

    “Diversity is a strong reality at CERN, and is also one of the core values underpinning our code of conduct. The organisation is fully committed to promoting diversity and equality at all levels,” a statement by CERN noted. “Cern always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment,” it continued.

    Prof Strumia defended his comments despite the numerous attacks mainly from British women on him as the audience mostly comprised English-speaking female physicists.

    He told the Guardian that his detractors were “trying to paint me as a monster who discriminates against women” but said his presentation was about “facts” in response to statements made about men discriminating against women.

    According to Strumia, data showed male and female scientists were equally cited in presentations, and women were even favoured when it came to job hiring. “This is not the message they wanted [to hear] at this conference,” he added.

    During his talk he said at least female researchers in Italy tended to benefit from either “free or cheaper university” education, while the expensive Oxford University in England “extends exam times for women’s benefit”.

    He said one female participant at the event had claimed that the sphere of physics was second only to the military for sexual abuse, which was “totally absurd”.

    “These people are so worried about problems that don’t exist. What I actually said has good purpose. We are not discriminating, women have been helped for years,” Strumia explained.

    Dr Jessica Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London who also spoke at the conference, tweeted her disgust at Strumia. “Short summary of Strumia’s talk: women aren’t as good at physics as men and they’ve been allocated too much funding/ been promoted into positions of power unfairly. He said this to an audience of early career #womeninSTEM,” she said.

    According to Wade, women in the room had their feelings hurt. She added that he had focused only on “discredited research” which showed that the number of citations for a physicist was a metric for ability.

    Professor Anne-Christine Davis of Cambridge University, called his comment “absolutely outrageous” for “this day and age”.

    But male participants defended Strumia’s right to an opinion. He may “well be wrong” but that did not warrant removal, said Nic Macdonald. “It should be responded to scientifically, and politically, not removed as ‘highly offensive’,” Macdonald tweeted.

    CERN is currently led by a female physicist who is no stranger to controversy herself. When director-general Fabiola Gianotti, announced the discovery of the Higgs Boson particle in 2012, she chose Comic Sans lettering in the slide presentation of the groundbreaking scientific results.

    Professor Fabiola Gianotti. CERN

    The uproar over the inappropriate use of comic book type was due largely to the importance of the material presented. Comic Sans MS is a sans-serif casual script typeface used largely in comic book lettering, intended mainly for use in informal documents and children’s materials.

    In situations for which it was not intended, the typeface became the subject of mockery.

    In a statement CERN, which had appointed Gianotti in 2016 despite the controversy, said it was a “culturally diverse organisation” that brought people together from dozens of nationalities.

    “It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation,” the statement said.

    Slides from Strumia’s presentation at the conference on high energy physics and gender in Genoa on Friday has since been taken down from the CERN website “in line with a code of conduct that does not tolerate personal attacks and insults”. The slides were wiped from the website by Gianotti, who has described Strumia’s presentation as “highly offensive”.

    Attendees however noted that Strumia’s views have been widely known for a while.

    In his slideshow which has circulated online, he noted that women like Marie Curie, were “welcomed only after showing what they can do…”

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