There is some disagreement in the newspapers on whether or not the gender segregation was voluntary. Be that as it may, I can understand Krauss’ reaction and would probably have done the same.
Reason I’m telling you this is not that I’ve suddenly become an activist for women’s rights in Islam, but that a month later Krauss’ gave a public lecture in Stockholm (I was not there). He was introduced by a guy called Christer Sturmark, and I recommend you listen to this yourself, at 1:20 – 2:10 min
“I now realize that maybe I should have warned Professor Krauss that our audience here is also segregated. String theorists have to sit in the back. I hope that’s okay.”So there’s this guy, Sturmark, who tells us on his website that he’s editor of a journal for cultural and intellectual debates and who, on Wikipedia, is described as “prominent debater on religion and humanism in Swedish media.” This “intellectual” evidently thinks it’s funny to pretend that string theorists have to sit in the back of the room, like suppressed and disadvantaged women in certain religious groups. To make matters worse, he is clearly reading his introduction off, so it’s not like that was the kind of spontaneous joke that came out wrong. It was a deliberately made comparison. It was probably made because he thought that it would amuse the audience. And though I can’t say that they were exactly rolling on the floor, you can hear some laughter in the recording.
Sturmark doesn’t seem to have an education in physics (according to Wikipedia he has a BA in computer science), so it appears fair to say that he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. And evidently he thought it okay to make jokes about string theory without knowing what he’s talking about. Because everybody does it, right? Imagine he’d have said “Material scientists have to sit in the back. I hope that’s okay.” Haha. Wait. WFT?
My problem isn’t so much with Sturmark himself – the world is full with guys who think they’re oh-so-smart and who need a haircut. He’s hardly the first to make fun of string theorists, and he probably won’t be the last. No, my problem is the impression that jokes and condescending remarks about string theorists have become acceptable in general.
This isn’t an “intellectual debate”. This is a sickening way of making brainless jokes about a whole group of scientists. Yes, some of the stuff that they work on will turn out to have no relevance for our understanding of nature. The same can be said about literally all research areas. Yes, some of them seem to have gone off the deep end. But one shouldn’t extrapolate from single points of data.
No, I’m not a string theorist. No, I’ve never even worked on string theory. No, I’m not married to a string theorist either. Or if, he’s hiding it well. Yes, I think more attention should be paid to making contact to experiment, that’s why I work on the phenomenology of quantum gravity. I want to know how to describe quantum effects of space and time and, whether you like that or not, string theory was and is still among the best candidates.
I think it’s really bad taste to make fun of scientists just because they are interested in certain research questions. What worries me much more than the bad taste though is that scientists of course take note of the public opinion, consciously and unconsciously. Scientists make deliberate efforts to keep discussions and evaluations objective in order to be able to make accurate assessments of the promise of certain research directions. And this strive for objectivity is greatly skewed by publicly ridicule.
In comparison to the struggles for women’s rights this is a petty issue of course. But it’s about a topic, quantum gravity, I care deeply about, even if the biggest part of the world doesn’t.
Having said that, if you watch the first 15 minutes or so of Krauss’ lecture you’ll note that he makes a whole series of jokes and fails to elicit laughter from the Scandinavians, which is quite amusing in its own right. If you’ve ever given a talk somewhere in North Europe, you can probably relate. He didn’t exactly help his situation by self-deprecating remarks about the USA - Italians might have been laughing their butts off, but Swedes are much too polite for this. Be that as it may, Krauss’ lecture is well structured and well delivered, though I guess that most of you won’t actually learn anything new from it.