Thursday, August 30, 2007


Gee, I *really* should be cleaning up my apartment, but it seems today everybody wants to get upset about Tommaso's post about a talk by Lisa Randall. The scandal being that it does not only mention her work, but also her looks:

"Lisa Randall is notoriously not only an esteemed and well-known theorist, but also a quite attractive woman - a powerful mix, capable of turning to jello the knees of most men. Today she wore a nice black and white dress which left her shoulders and arms exposed, a necklace of mother-of-pearl, and a wide-band silver bracelet with colored stones. Her hair was collected in a pony tail. She looked nice and fit - for some reason it made me think she probably works out on a regular basis"

Despite the actually very interesting topic of her talk that could have been discussed, this is almost immediately followed by comments from Sean Carroll ("you contribute to an atmosphere in which women are outsiders to be gawked at ...") and JoAnne Hewett ("Got sex on your mind while writing this post, do you?") , and Clifford's post Still So Far To Go, who is embarrassed on behalf of everybody who can not only think about women's clothes but actually writes about it

"It’s so completely awful to do this sort of thing [...] From his comments in response to people pointing out the inappropriateness of it, it turns out that he really does not get it at all. Not a bit. It is really sad. It is so embarrassing too [...] since it is damaging to the cause of women in the field."

Which, needless to say, asks for Lubos' reply who fills us in with his analysis of Prof. Randall:

"[L]et me start by saying that I know Lisa Randall much more than these two guys [...] She is attractive and she is an exceptional athlete. [...] Does she enjoy to be admired for diferent things than being the most cited particle physicist between 1999 and 2004? [D]oes Lisa or other special women in science like to ignite interest and emotions in general? I think that I know enough to figure out the answer and the answer is Yes. You won't learn any details from me but I just find the general answer important."

In fact, I am not really interested to learn the details about why Lubos thinks Lisa likes to 'ignite emotions'. But anyhow, so Tommaso, who is now officially the sexist among the MALE physics bloggers, clarifies his writing in a second post "Am I a sexist?"

"If I venture in a description of a person I meet - be it a woman, a man, whatever - it is because this is my diary, and I want to keep a record of my ideas, my feelings, my thoughts."

Which would make for a nice discussion on the issue of privacy in the public domain. But I currently don't have the time to get into this.

Instead let me add my two cents. First, I find it very interesting that the mentioning of Lisa's necklace causes much more attention that the rest of Tommaso's post, which is actually quite good and worth reading. Those of you who usually don't comment on good readings but only on things you are offended by might think about whether this is a good behaviour to express appreciation. Second, I don't know Lisa Randall personally, but I recalled that she wrote a recent article in Discover magazine that I want to quote some paragraphs from and let her speak for herself:

"As soon as I arrived in Venice it was clear things would be a little unusual. Although I think of myself as a physicist when I’m at a conference, that is not necessarily what others see at first. On the ferry into Venice, I met the man in charge of the science department at the Vatican. He assumed I was on vacation and not particularly interesting until I told him I was the first speaker, after which we had animated exchanges about science and belief and evidence. He wasn’t the only one who didn’t think I was a scientist at first. As the conference was about to begin, the technical person ignored me but was very helpful to the person sitting next to me in the front row, even though I was about to go on stage! In fact virtually no one seemed to realize I was a scientist, including the media there. More disappointing, it didn’t even occur to anyone to ask.

Happily, after my talk about cosmology the situation completely reversed. People now knew who I was; they felt they had learned something and were eager to discuss my talk. For the few days I was there I had a marvelous time. I’m not complaining—I’m observing and questioning. Do preconceived assumptions and superficial first impressions matter?

[...] In Genoa, people knew who I was. But the fact that I was seen as different was brought home to me by the headlines and the interviews that concentrated on my being a woman doing science—still rare everywhere but extremely rare at the upper levels of science in Italy. Italian Vanity Fair published an interview with me that shows a refreshing open-mindedness to science in popular culture. But it was pretty funny when the publicity people hesitantly translated the title of the article for me: “The Beauty Is a Geek” (actually they said “genius” to be nice, but really it said “geek”). As they had anticipated, I was a little startled and a tad disturbed. Though flattering on one level, these comments are unsettling on another. I just don’t think of myself this way. Then I realized it’s precisely the point that is critical to get across. Why do we create totally separate categories—the beautiful woman and the geek man? It’s hard to believe that the expectation that these are incompatible qualities doesn’t make science less attractive for women (and many men).

The headlines were particularly jarring to me because I, like many other women doing science, try not to focus on being female. You just want to be a scientist like the others. But if this involves suppressing your personality, as these categories suggest, you might find that many women (not to mention some men) will be put off."


  1. The key problem is simply that there are not enough women in physics who would write about the sexy black turtleneck that that Professor Bart XYZ wore the other day...

    Actually, they exist, see for example the Richard Feynman Fan Club on Facebook. Apparently Feynman's mojo was so strong that he even has guys drooling over hime there....

  2. Hehe. I knew academics were childish ^^. I really hope not to get into these hassles when I get older.

  3. Hi Frank,

    Sure, but that is only one of the problems. If I sit in a seminar, I certainly occasionally notice the guy is good looking. However, unless I know the person, and know he doesn't mind I probably wouldn't go on about his athletic body on my blog. But I guess that's my sense of privacy that Tommaso doesn't share. I wouldn't be offended by his writing, but I can't but wonder whether Lisa Randall would be disturbed by it - that's what I find objectionable. What disturbs me somewhat though are those who criticise him, thereby expressing an personal opinion, but making it sound as if they speak righteously for the whole community, and don't even seem to be aware that in contrast to this Tommaso has clearly just written about his perception. Which one might like or not like, share or not share, but he as every other is entitled to it.



  4. "However, unless I know the person, and know he doesn't mind I probably wouldn't go on about his athletic body on my blog."

    Likewise. In some sense, as you note, this is more an issue on privacy on blogs rather then sexism.

    As Randall says, what is disturbing is the assumption that the categories "attractive" and "great physicist" seem to be considered so exclusive, even to the degree that some of the commentators imply that by noticing the attraction you are neccessarily detracting from (rather then irrelevantly complementing to) the science.

  5. Most of the women I know would much rather have their appearance commented on by men than by other women. Women can be quite mean to each other, and in most work places women tend to dress to impress each other instead of the men. Sure, women want to be listened to for their ideas and want to be taken seriously in their professions. But the most gracious and graceful of women can accept compliments about how they look as easily as compliments about how smart they are.

  6. Hi Bee,

    You wrote:

    "and Clifford's post Still So Far To Go, who is embarrassed on behalf of everybody who can not only think about women's clothes but actually writes about it"

    I'm puzzled as to why you'd so oddly misrepresent what I wrote like that, especially after our many discussions together about how people don't seem to read blog posts very carefully before commenting or arguing.

    You may disagree with me on the issue (which is fine), and you may think (wrongly) that I'm trying to "speak righteously for the whole community", but why misrepresent what I wrote? It is very disappointing.



  7. Hi Clifford:

    My apologies if I misread your post, so maybe you could clarify? You refer to Tommaso's post and comment "It is so embarrassing too, when anyone female shows up in a physics context and guys just start behaving like they’ve never seen a woman before." which you later refer to as "a silliness". I understood it as you are embarrassed if men in your community do that. I paraphrased this as you are embarrassed on their behalf. Did I misunderstand it?

    In my experience this kind of male behaviour doesn't seem to be special to 'physics context', and I too would call it 'a silliness' but I find it hard to believe that 'The key point is that doing this sort of thing in this context does not send a good message to younger women in the field who are trying to be taken seriously'. I think we have noticed earlier that we just disagree on these matters. I think it is much more damaging to sweep these kind of things under the rug, and deal with every clear indicator that women are not men by banning it. It's not as if Tommaso had written a referee report on Lisa's paper but he has written about a clearly personal impression. If he wants the whole world (including his wife and family) to know he likes Lisa's looks, well, why not just let him? The only message he sends to younger women is that they might prefer somebody else as a supervisor. And shouldn't they be glad they know what they are at? The only one who risks not being taken seriously is Tommaso.



  8. Bee,

    What I said is clearly written in the post. I don't understand why I have to write it again. The stuff about women's clothing, etc, that you wrote as a lead-in to what I said on the issue is simply and thoroughly misleading about the points that I took great pains to write very carefully about concerning the issue. I talked very carefully about the issue of context, especially -the single most important issue here, in fact- and all that has been swept away in the effort to characterize me and others as wanting to "speak righteously" and so forth. You yourself object strongly (as you should) when commenters mischaracterize what you say here on your blog, make a caricature of it and then argue against the caricature. This is exactly what you are doing now. It's very sad that you'd choose to argue this way.

    Thanks, however, for recognizing and admitting the possibility that you might have mischarcterized what I said though - this is rare in the blogworld, it seems.


  9. Hi Clifford,

    I certainly welcome your gentlemanly attitude, but yes I guess I just don't understand why you feel misrepresented by me saying you are embarrassed on other people's behalves, as I thought that is what you are. I apologize for not summarizing all the details of your writing, but I think you are just overreacting. What you basically ask for is censoring of any such mentioning of, well, women's clothes and differences between genders in general, isn't it? You don't call it censorship, but "not pollut[ing] the atmosphere of the workplace". Well, I think it pollutes the atmosphere of the workplace much more if people are afraid to say things they think nevertheless. Why? Because it means that one can't rationalize these perceptions. Say, if there is a woman considered for hire, PC will try to suppress any mentioning of that fact, which is in everybodies mind anyhow, so people will try to maneuver around it. Why not just say: she's a women, we shouldn't put her into an office with the particle-sexist, and maybe tell her about how we deal with maternity leaves etc. Yes, there ARE differences between men and women, and I don't want these to be denied but respected. If you read some of the comments on your blog, it seems to me it is more an insecurity about how they might be perceived that bothers young women in science and makes them feel uncomfortable. Me too, I have had to ask myself whether wearing dresses or painting toenails in pink might affect what my male colleagues think about my scientific research - because they will clearly notice it anyhow. I'd rather know what they think, and wheather it conflicts with reasonable scientific argumentations, than feeling awkward about being a women because they are afraid to behave naturally.



  10. Hi all,

    Bee, I really appreciate the fact that you understood my right to add a personal remark in my blog, and stood by it.

    I insist, I think that paragraph only added some interest to the post. It actually was inserted at the beginning for a purpose: it makes more people interested than a dry discussion.

    I know how many people look for Lisa Randall on the internet because I see the google searches ending in my site (which hosted a discussion on her a while ago). She is a public figure, talks to Vogue, Vanity Fair, etc. And as a public figure, she gets this kind of coverage, that she likes it or not. And, if I have to bet, she is not offended by it.


  11. Bee,

    I understand you to have said that this was more a question of manners than sexism - I completely agree. (Of course if you didn't say that, I probably didn't read your post carefully enough, so nevermind).

    One of the things men notice first about women is their sexual attractiveness - this is just biology. Circumstances dictate whether it's appropriate to mention ones impression in that regard. When the subject is trying to explain her scientific ideas does not seem like an appropriate occasion - at least to me. Customs may differ in other countries.

  12. I find it troubling that anyone would be so put off by Tommaso's comments. Is there no end to PC? He was not giving a job interview or performance review where the inclusion of the beauty (or lack thereof) of the subject is not to be considered. Then when you consider the length of the post on the subject of her talk, I mean come on people get over yourselves. You know this will never end. We will reach a point where any subjective comment about anything, living or not, will be considered inappropriate because someones feelings, somewhere, might be hurt or some how offended.

  13. Hi Tommaso,

    Interestingly, you have brought up exactly the same issue that my husband pointed out to me, mentioning that Lisa Randall apparently does not mind that kind of public coverage since she chose to give interviews for fashion magazines etc. Maybe that is right, I don't know. Well, you have certainly managed to write a post that "makes more people interested than a dry discussion." ;-)

    Hi CIP:

    You basically got me right. And manners differ greatly. So I think we all need a bit more tolerance on both sides: PC and PI. I don't think myself as being Politically Incorrect, but it is interesting that those who react so sensitive to the issue in many cases don't even seem to be aware that this sensitivity - or perception of 'correctness' - might be a consequence of one's upbringing, and not necessarily a patent for moral superiority.

    Hi Anonymous Snowboarder:

    I am totally with you there. I guess it is a consequence of my upbringing that I prefer honesty over PC, but sometimes it's difficult. I am afraid that I might have offended people repeatedly without meaning to do so. And vice versa people have repeatedly offended me, I think without meaning to. I think it would be better to be aware of such differences and keeping in mind that they exist, instead of trying to erase them. Best,


  14. Dear Clifford,

    having read all these posts and comments with some delay, I have to say that I found your post in response to Tommaso's report a bit harsh, and overreacting. I could imagine that Bee has felt similarly. The first paragraphs talk a lot about embarassment, and maybe that has caused her to sum it up in that "catchy" fomulation you object.

    Anyway, I hope I got your point about context - but I don't quite agree with you on how to apply it in this case. I think it does matter that this original description is in a blog post by some Italian physicist - not in a genreric work context -, and, even more so, that it is about Lisa Randall, and not about a graduate student or young postdoc. I do not know if Lisa Randall likes it or not, but she has reached some kind of celebrity status, and I guess that makes things a little bit more complicated in her case.

    Thanks and best regards,


  15. I seem to recall a lot of attention being paid to Brian Greene's looks when he first hit the popularization scene...I believe the "official" String Theory website even promoted him as something like "the John Cusack of physics" or somesuch. First thing my wife said when she saw the back cover of my copy of "Elegant Universe": WOW, he's CUTE! You figure Dr. Greene feels victimized by the attention? Would it be sexist to assume he doesn't?

    And you know what? He IS a good looking guy. Maybe the hard sciences just don't have enough of teh hawt going, so when a bona fide hottie appears, it's hard to ignore. I mean, beauty and those kinds of brains, in one package? It's just too much!

    It doesn't necessarily make someone a knuckle-dragger because they can appreciate both the brain and the body. Dr. Randall is remarkably gifted in more ways than one, so what's the crime in just admitting one finds it all good? It's not like every article ever written about her in the mainstream press hasn't gushed similarly already. Perhaps it's a bit adolescent, and maybe Dr. Randall is tired of hearing about it by now, but I don't see oppressive harm in Dr. Dorigo's post, I'm afraid.

  16. Hi Bee and Stefan,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I think we ought to just agree to disagree here. I can't think of anything else to say on the matter that I have not already said many times today and yesterday. I am not asking for censorship, on the one hand, and on the other hand, it is hopelessly naive to think that anyone can say or do anything that they want to in any situation. There is a balance to be struck, and with the appallingly low numbers of women and minorities contributing to science, it would seem that the wise thing to do is err on the side of caution. Reversing the situation and talking about remarks made about Brian Greene (as done by the previous commenter) is a total red herring, for example - he is already secure as part of the overwhelming majority of people in the field, so that is missing the point entirely. I'm not asking for censorship, just a bit of common sense and care in how we treat our colleagues and how we are seen to treat our colleagues by those less established people trying to make their way in the field. Context is important, and we should be mindful of it. That's my main point. Characterizing what I say as simply me wanting to censor everybody is a very poor way of summarizing a fairly simple point I was trying to make.


  17. One difference in our society between professional men and professional women is in what counts as business (and/or formal) attire. The typical clothes that a man wears to give a lecture tend not to emphasize his great body, his bulging biceps, his sculpted calves, whatever. In contrast, typical women's clothes reveal a lot more.

    I'm not suggesting that this explains the difference in attitude toward male and female speakers, but I think that the two phenomena are related. Women's clothes emphasize the beauty of the wearer, while men's clothes tend not to.

  18. Albert Einstein’s immense legacy to understanding the universe includes, for physicists, an image of the wild-haired, distracted scientist scratching indecipherable hieroglyphics on a blackboard. Blonde, slender, Harvard-trained theoretical physics professor and author Lisa Randall belies the stereotype of the bespectacled, pen-pocket-protected academic.

    The Morning News

  19. Hi Clifford:

    Sure, as I have mentioned above, it's a question of manners. I can't even say I like Tommaso's writing, but that's an entirely different question than the women-in-science issue that you make out of it.

    I can live with disagreements, but I have the feeling that you are not willing to accept even the existence of another valid point of view. What you call 'to err on the side of caution' rests on YOUR view of erring and on YOUR view of caution. My version of erring on the side of caution is open speech first, in case of doubt, let people say what they think instead of sweeping opinions under the rug (since you don't like the word censorship).

    Notwithstanding whether or not he's attractive, the Brian Greene question is relevant:

    You say you don't want women to feel like the odd one out, yet it's you, and Sean and JoAnne, and all those who stand up, yell, and point fingers on the mentioning of Lisa Randall's looks that is a spit in my face. You are yelling: WOMEN!! NEEDS PROTECTION!! NEVER NEVER TALK ABOUT HER NECKLACE!! If a similar paragraph (minus the Necklace) had been written about Greene or Feynman or whoever with an Y chromosome, you wouldn't even have bothered to raise an eyebrow, even if the writer had went on and on about somebodies athletic body. So why don't you just proclaim your disapproval of Tommaso's bad writing style but make it a women-in-science thing? If it wasn't so totally against my nature, I'd be very tempted to write some equally off-topic remarks about male seminar speakers. And then what? You would approve because I offend young males, thereby potentially raising the women quota?

    Also, as I have said above, the context of Tommaso's offensive remark is a blog post, and whether you like to realize it or not what you are demanding IS that he scrapes out his personal remarks of this sort, and that I definitely can not approve of.

    All the best,


  20. Hi Daryl: Sure, but in physics things are rarely really formal and businesslike. In fact, I would appreciate if some of my colleagues would at least change their clothes once per weak, wash their hair at least every second day, and PLEASE PLEASE don't wear socks in sandals. So, if you want to do something about women in science, how about you consider improving the work environment by meeting minimal aesthetic standards? And while we're at it, if you're a good looking guy who works out regularly, please wear a tight shirt if you give a talk. Thanks, B.

  21. I really think that it's a bit ridiculous to take a whole conversation that has a rather important historical context (and according to Amara, who would know better than the rest of us about Italy, an important contemporary political context) and boil it down to manners. I can see why Clifford is having a hard time accepting that it can be done, and he's not the only one.

  22. vqysI don't think it's fair to completely dismiss my statement as a "red herring". There's a sexual inequality component, and there's a beauty component, and the two can be decoupled to some extent, I think. To wit, not all male or female physicists are beautiful. Sadly, the stereotype of nearly all scientists, male or female, is one of social and physical awkwardness, to put it kindly.

    A woman in the highest echelons of physics is enough of a rarity that she will attract great attention. That will change most likely when women are no longer rare in those circles. Make her beautiful? Now you're talking rock star status, especially if she actively promotes herself as a popularizer of her field. Brian Greene is rare. Lisa Randall is rarer. It think it's an oversimplification to simply ignore the novelty of it all and cast everything in the light of gender politics (which is not to say sensitivity to that issue should not have been observed).

    Beauty casts a powerful spell. Couple it with other superlatives, and may rise to celebrity, simply by being, because humans are not built to conform to some objective ideal of intellectual purity, and we tend to get pretty obsessive.

    We can exhort our fellows to ignore the cover and only see the book inside, but I'd say it's a built-in human failing that we are incapable of doing that completely. Not to say we shouldn't at least try, but it's not always piggish lechery to fall short, and some cultures may be more permissive of candidly expressing the impact of our biological imperatives than others.

    Bad manners in international company? Sure, I'll buy that. Opression? Maybe, but that's quite an indictment, if you ask me.

  23. Chanda, what I am basically saying is that we all need a bit more tolerance. Tolerance for a different 'historical context', other countries cultures, socialization, other people's writing style...

  24. But what do we mean by tolerance? I don't think anyone has gone to Tomasso's blog site and asked them to shut him down. Tolerance is co-existing, not silently acquiescing to something that is potentially socially harmful. Indeed, I have my own personal experiences with being encouraged to tolerate in a way that means being silent.

    I always find it interesting to see who encourages me to act as if racist comments did not happen. It is frequently based on this same argument that it is important to be tolerant. Most of the time, what people really mean when they say be tolerant is that I should be accomodating. I should take into account that someone can say whatever he wants to me and then cower behind his own cultural context as an excuse? This is really a bit pathetic, especially when it comes to something as universal as sexism and workplace discrimination. If the excuse really is that in Italy men find it acceptable to behave in this way, then it sounds to me like they have a problem, as Amara has outlined.
    Understanding how the problem manifests and can be resolved is certainly a uniquely Italian issue, but that has no bearing on an outsider's ability to recognize the following: Italy ain't that special. I don't think you have to be Italian to be fair in taking that point, in the same way that Clifford doesn't have to be a woman to stand up for the rights of women. You would have to work very hard to convince me that Italy's development on gender and sex issues is so extricable from the rest of the Western world that the sexism is completely different. If anything, it sounds like it is just worse.

    Therefore, as far as I can tell, Clifford was acting completely within the definition of "tolerant" when he encouraged people to have a look at Tomasso's blog and hosted a debate about it in his blog. Intolerance is when we start to censor which is certainly not what Clifford did. If anything, he got Tomasso more traffic!

  25. Bee wrote:

    "I have the feeling that you are not willing to accept even the existence of another valid point of view"

    Why on earth would you conclude that? I've been inviting and having discussion here and elsewhere. This attitude/conclusion makes no sense to me.


  26. Dear Clifford,

    it's a complicated and serious issue, and I agree with you that

    There is a balance to be struck, and with the appallingly low numbers of women and minorities contributing to science, it would seem that the wise thing to do is err on the side of caution.

    However, in my opinion it still matters that Tommaso talks not about any woman physicist, but about Lisa Randall, who, as anonymous puts it, has gained rock star status.

    In this respect, I do not quite understand your objection that [Brian Greene] is already secure as part of the overwhelming majority of people in the field. Do you want to say that he is secure because he is male ("part of the overwhelming majority of people in the field" meaning being male)? Or that Lisa Randall is not secure? That last interpretation would really puzzle me, because I would have thought that Lisa Randall is as respected and established a physics professor as one can be, but maybe that is naive.

    Anyway, I'm starting to realize that my distinction "Lisa Randall vs other female physicists" in the assessment of Tommaso's post might be valid for physicists, who know who Lisa Randall is, but not so for random readers of Tommaso's blog, who might never have heard of her before. I guess part of your point is that for readers missing such background knowledge about Lisa Randall, Tommaso's description leaves a wrong, misleading, and damaging impression about gender issues in phyics - and to that, I can subscribe.

    Things stay complicated ... I'm convinded that all this will get easier as more women will become physicists, and I hope that Tommaso's post did no harm to that long-term development.

    Best regards, Stefan

  27. Hi Chanda:

    My remarks above do not circle around Clifford alone, I am actually not sure why he and you think I am talking about him specifically, and since I am actually sympathetic to much of his opinion why not leave him out of the argument. Luckily there is no way anybody else than Tommaso could have censored his writing, but if I read the comments on his and the related posts, I am reasonably sure there are many people who would immediately have deleted this paragraph if only they could. They are all entitled to their opinion, as much as Tommaso's is to his. What I mean with tolerance in this regard is to maybe acknowledge that what you call 'potentially socially harmful' might either not be so, or at least not so in somebody elses opinion. I personally don't find Tommaso's remarks sexist. I've heard a fair share of far worse things, and the worst are those that people would never repeat in public. That's what I am trying to communicate, Chanda. The things you SHOULD worry about are those that people are afraid to say publicly. Not Tommaso's rather harmless compliments. Punishing people for saying what they think won't change their mind.



  28. Stefan wrote:

    "Anyway, I'm starting to realize that my distinction "Lisa Randall vs other female physicists" in the assessment of Tommaso's post might be valid for physicists, who know who Lisa Randall is, but not so for random readers of Tommaso's blog, who might never have heard of her before. I guess part of your point is that for readers missing such background knowledge about Lisa Randall, Tommaso's description leaves a wrong, misleading, and damaging impression about gender issues in phyics - and to that, I can subscribe."

    YES! YES! YES! This is one of the things I've been trying to say - the impression it gives to others, especially people coming into the field...

    Thank you Stefan.


  29. What is toleration?

    As I wrote on CVJ's blog, what Tommaso wrote was neither untrue nor unkind, so what remains is "was it necessary"? The answer to the last question is that there is no objective criteria for making that judgement. Therefore depending on what factors are important to you, Tommaso's paragraph will seem less or more unnecessary.

    To recognize that there are legitimate viewpoints on either side is what tolerance is.

  30. Hi Clifford:

    Why on earth would you conclude that?

    As so often, I find communication via blog comments somewhat difficult, and it is sometimes hard for me to extract other people's opinion. So, if I got you wrong, I am genuinely sorry. I got the impression that you state your opinion about doing damage "to the cause of women in the field" in a very absolute way, without leaving any doubts whether your conclusions might de facto be correct in the sense of improving the situation.

    Would you acknowledge that you might err on the wrong side of caution? I.e., as I was trying to say, overprotecting women by sweeping differences between men and women under the carpet might be doing exactly the wrong thing. Best,


  31. ;)

    So to attempt another unfair summary, CVJ's post should have been "While to anyone who knows Tommaso Dorigo and Lisa Randall, TD's comments about LR's looks at a seminar are harmless, as a general thing, physicist A talking thusly about physicist B is to be discouraged, because like it or not, physics suffers from some severe gender imbalances, and great care is needed to redress the situation."

    ;) As I said, severe failure of communications ;)

  32. IN context of the historical valuations on "discrimination and injustices." Applied to "any people" is one that has roots "even in Canada:)"

    Seeing Jacques speaking on "Tommy Douglas," is a good case in point. Two levels of society?

    People fail to realize they came with their own "family environments." It helped shape who they are today.

    Sons, who grew up without fathers, become their mother's sons? This has it's effect even within today's actions of those who stand at the forefront. How would you know if you did not encounter the injustices within one's own family to not be able to recognize that what began within the roots of the family, is taken with us into today's world.

    Why then today, do they do what they do, and now I see all the educated here within their own "cultured halls" dismayed, as if they forgotten their own history.

    This does not say we cannot change, or that we ignore what constitutes discrimination or bullying of any kind in the workplace.

    "History," if any thing, "allows us to change" when viewed from our own point of view. Our "point of view" is not always right?:)

  33. Hi Arun,

    And if one summarizes the situation like this, the bottomline is men think about women, even in physics. Why trying to desperately scrape out evidence of this fact that every women who is old enough to enter the field knows anyhow?



  34. I agree that we are unlikely to change Tomasso's mind. It's never my goal really to change someone's mind when they say or do things like this.

    But I do think that it is important to challenge what is said so that people who have not thought about about the potential implications of such a comment are urged to. Even if in the end they disagree with me, at least they've applied some critical thought. This is one of the ways in which things shift -- if we don't challenge comments that at least some of us perceive as sexist, then there is no open dialogue about sexism.

    I can't do anything about the things that are said behind closed doors. But I can challenge the things that are said out in the open.

    I think I agree with Stefan's assessment of the situation: one reason that some of us consider Tomasso's comments unsavoury is specifically because of how the random reader might take it - both male and female. It is important, at the very least, to point out how such comments can have a negative impact, which Clifford so spiritedly did.

    And I would never delete such comments. Believe me, when some people at PI made racist comments to me last fall, I was grateful to know who the a**holes were so I could spend my time with better people. I certainly prefer it if people are honest about their discriminatory ideas instead of hiding it behind political correctness or lying about it. But I don't see how that means I shouldn't give 'em hell for it if I feel like it will be useful to do.

    Otherwise, ideas that should be challenged go unchallenged. I think we could see a lot of parallel arguments in how science is done. It's not enough to state an idea that some people like - it is important to question that idea and see how it holds up.

  35. Bee said:

    "Would you acknowledge that you might err on the wrong side of caution? I.e., as I was trying to say, overprotecting women by sweeping differences between men and women under the carpet might be doing exactly the wrong thing."

    But Bee, you again are saying that I am advocating something that I never advocated, so I'm afraid I cannot endorse something I never said. Nowhere in my post did I ever say or imply that we should sweep away or ignore the differences between men and women. That is completely different from what I was saying. That indeed would be a total mistake. In the post, I went to great pains to explain that I was *not* saying that.

    Please re-read the post.

    It is very hard to have a discussion, and respectfully acknowledge the validity of aspects of each other's point of view if one of us keeps inventing gross mischaracteriztions of what the other said. Very hard indeed.



  36. Hi Clifford:

    Look, how can I disagree if you refuse to state your opinion. I have went through great pains myself re- and re-re-reading your post at least ten times and I think this is sufficient. If I didn't get it by now, then I am probably just not able to. So would you maybe be so kind to explain then what you were trying to say if I got you wrong. I understood that you are greatly disapproving of a man mentioning a female scientist's look in a context such as a personal blog entry, that you think this is embarrassing, damaging for the 'cause of women in the field' and that 'the best policy is to err on the side of caution' which means for you to not write things like e.g. Tommaso's infamous paragraph.

    I am asking you whether you might maybe acknowledge that this is a personal perception, that other people like e.g. me might have the opinion it is instead more damaging to make such a fuss about a couple of sentences. I am asking you whether you might consider that your sense of 'pollut[ing] the atmosphere of the workplace' might not be shared by everybody, and that it might instead indeed pollute the atmosphere much more if people (bloggers?) have to be scared of being publicly punished for sharing a personal opinion.

    In my opinion it is blowing up incidents like this beyond proportion that 'does not send a good message to younger women in the field who are trying to be taken seriously'. I am genuinely sorry that I made matters even worse by writing the post above at all, the reason for which was actually just mentioning Lisa Randall's article (something nobody seems to have noticed). I usually don't comment on women-in-science issues exactly for the reason that I seem to be in conflict with the unwritten laws of political correctness, and this so it seems, is not tolerable.



  37. Clifford,

    Let's see, the issue you claim to be concerned about is that of the problems faced by young women physicists. You have a bona fide young woman physicist who is repeatedly trying to politely tell you that she disagrees with you strongly about this and trying to explain to you a different point of view, one based upon her experience.

    In response, you completely ignore her arguments and what she has to say, other than to adopt a hurt tone and go on and on about how she isn't paying proper attention to you and your views. You're making this all about you.

    I have plenty of my own opinions about this issue, but, instead of going on about them, it seems to me that in this case the best thing for men to do is to just shut up for a while and listen to what women have to say.

  38. Hi Peter,

    In case this wasn't clear to you, I am an even younger woman in physics, and I completely support Clifford's point. Amara is also a lady of physics, and she seemed to agree as well. So perhaps instead of claiming that disagreeing with Bee means he is disregarding women, you could look at who has been commenting on the debate.

    You are grossly misrepresenting the conversation as far as I am concerned, and I cannot imagine why you would invent such a version of events that so clearly conflicts with facts that anyone participating can put together.

    Moreover, I think it is outrageous to suggest that the men should shut up and stay out of the debate. I am grateful for the contributions that both Clifford and Stefan have made here and at Asymptotia. As a woman, I greatly appreciate hearing how things sound from their end.

    Your thinly-veiled attempt to essentially say "shut up" is, however, not at all appreciated by this young woman.


  39. Chanda,

    I think I'll follow my own advice here...

  40. Bee,

    As I said already, let's agree to disagree. I can't see how else to say what I have already said. I'm sorry. My stating my opinion (on any topic) is not the same as declaring that everyone else is wrong by assumption, ok? This is why we have conversations and discussions about each others' opinions.

    Of course there are other points of view, and other perceptions on the issue. I agree that they exist, and in some cases I don't agree with their content, and in some cases they are simply other points of view on which I have no disagreement or agreement. I think that the best thing to do when we are not all in agreement on such an important issue is to tread carefully and be mindful of the feelings and opinions of others. You call it political correctness, while I simply think of it as being respectful of each other, and keeping the work-related areas of our interactions free from being sexually charged, etc. My suggestion for doing this is to be careful of what we say and how we behave in these contexts. I've outlined what I think some of the contexts are. I do think that a blog that reports regularly on physics content and with the readership of lots of people who may be trying to get a window on what professional physicists are doing in the field is such a context: A professional colleague mixing up a report on someone's work with sexually charged remarks about their appearance is definitely such a context, regardless of the name of the blog.

    That's all there is to say. It's all in the post already, in fact. I'm very sorry, but I cannot find another way of saying it.

    Best wishes.


  41. Hi Peter:

    Thanks, I appreciate that.

    Hi Chanda:

    I think you have misunderstood Peter's comment. I think he tried to point out that what bothers me is Clifford's unwillingness to accept that not everybody shares his opinion on what damages 'the cause of women in the field'. In fact, each time I ask him to acknowledge I disagree on something, he says I misrepresent him, and I feel like unable to find out what then he is saying in the first place.

    I understand that you share Clifford's opinion on that matter. And maybe you are right, especially since it has occurred to me repeatedly that young women in the USA seem to be somewhat more sensitive with regard to everything that is oh-so-vaguely related to sex. And yes, I guess this is a good reason that remarks like Tommaso's might be damaging. But I would appreciate if you, and Clifford, would maybe at least accept that I do not share this opinion which you so confidently spread.



  42. Hi Clifford:

    Well, I give up. I just want to mention one last time that your use of words like 'respectful', 'embarrassing', 'erring on the side of caution' or 'polluted atmospheres' express your point of view. These are a subjective perceptions, and not the absolute of 'right' - a matter that you are apparently unwilling to acknowledge. It's a subjective perception that might not be shared by others, especially if those others grew up in a different sociological/historical/cultural context and might percieve an atmosphere that you consider 'clean' as 'polluted' instead.

    Besides this, I appreciate your patience and good manners.



  43. Dear Bee, given that he started that paragraph with: "If you allow a slip to inappropriate comments...", and then continued (!), and given that he knew well his global community and audience, and knowing how Italians like to joke, this looks more and more to me like Tommaso was pulling a prank. His blog hit rate probably went through the roof. (heh... Maybe his ISP will charge him for the spike ;-) )

    I would like to know how the understanding of physics and science, and/or the communication between men and women, improved through that blip, though. It looks to me like wasted energy on everyone's side.

  44. Dear Clifford, dear Chanda,

    thank you for your statements!

    So, I wonder if we can agree that the main problem about Tommaso's paragraph describing Lisa Randall's physical appearance is that it may, to the uninitiated random reader, perpetuate the unfortunate impression that physics still is a matter of sexist males, where women are not appreciated for their scientific achievements?

    But then, does this whole controversy not boil down to the problem of finding a good, appropriate wording?

    As commentator alpinekat has pointed out on Asymptotia, the mere mentioning of the physical appearance has not per se to be something objectionable.

    Now, even Tommaso states right at the beginning of his incriminated paragraph that Lisa Randall is an esteemed and well-known theorist - maybe this is just not strong enough a disclaimer to classify his following remarks as not intended to be pejorative or patronising in any way?

    What about if he had written something as (sorry, there are probably better writers than me, and I would not have written that myself...)

    "If you allow a remark not directly related to her talk, Lisa Randall is an highly esteemed and well-known physics professor at Harvard, and a top-cited particle theorist. Her papers about warped geometries made her a household name among physicists long before her recent popular science book was published. But even if you cannot fully appreciate her intellectual power, you might be impressed by her physical appearance -
    she's a quite attractive woman - a powerful mix, capable of turning to jello the knees of most men. Today she wore a nice black and white dress which left her shoulders and arms exposed, a necklace of mother-of-pearl, and a wide-band silver bracelet with colored stones. Her hair was collected in a pony tail. She looked self-confident and fit, as if she works out on a regular basis."

    Something like this should, in my opinion, definitely be possible - or do you think there is a No-Go?

    In case you have the impression that my opinion is changing along this thread - that may not be completely wrong: I am trying to shape it in a more precise way. And I am trying to get something of a positive result out of this long debate...

    Best regards, Stefan

  45. Amara,

    If the physicists had discussed the physics, and said, oh, btw, Tommaso, that para on what Lisa R. wore makes me uncomfortable, that would have been the appropriate way to deal with it.

    The pitchforks and cudgels should be reserved for repeat offender.

    Think about it this way. In the business world, you are taught that if someone commits a solecism in public, you talk to them IN PRIVATE first.

    So maybe physicists will learn what the rest of the world already knows. ;)

  46. as a side remark, Tommaso's post has degenerated into a crackpot-calling. I am going to change my imood into 'pissed off' and get seriously drunk. have fun yelling at each other, and a nice weekend to all of you.



  47. Arun, in his blog personna (which I didn't read before and I have no idea if that is who he is), there was a tone of taunting and sarcasm. Probably the communication would have gone a lot better if those who were offended thought that a listening ear on the other end was possible.

    Me, I'm used to drama going on in flashes all around me because that is the society I live in. But I'm not thrilled to have my time wasted with no improvement in understanding of physics, science, gender inequality, cultural differences and all else that these discussions danced around.

  48. "I am going to change my imood into 'pissed off' and get seriously drunk."

    It's sad that Tommaso D can make a statement about the appearance of a physics celebrity, one which nobody claims has actually harmed Prof Randall, and hundreds of anguished posts get written. Yet LM deliberately tries to undermine the confidence of Bee here, and where are CVJ, Sean Carroll, Mark Trodden and the rest of the gang? If Tommaso somehow represents a large group of sexists and must be slapped down on those grounds, why does not the same apply to LM? Please don't say that LM is a singularity, he is just an insanely outspoken representative of an attitude that is far more characteristic of the physics community, and does far more harm, than sexism.

    Dear Bee: Bottom line: LM is a failed physicist, he knows it and he's bitter. Don't let failures affect your mood.

  49. Yet LM deliberately tries to undermine the confidence of Bee here, and where are CVJ, Sean Carroll, Mark Trodden and the rest of the gang?

    Never EVER make the mistake of counting on any of them.

    Bee, pissed off, yes; pissed, no please!

  50. I seriously wonder if one day it wouldn't simply be better if we all had holograms that distorted our race/gender/looks while at work like in a Phillip K Dick novel.

    That way we wouldn't have to put up with the incredibably annoying whine and smug self righteousness put up by the victimization crowd at every opportunity.

    Thats sort of the beauty of the internet, and the reason why I use a pseudo. Maybe every working physicist should follow the hint so we can get their real content of thought, rather than being tracked down for 'inappropriate thoughts', whether its physics related or on other issues. Then again, maybe it might degenerate into something like this:

  51. as a side remark, Tommaso's post has degenerated into a crackpot-calling. I am going to change my imood into 'pissed off' and get seriously drunk. have fun yelling at each other, and a nice weekend to all of you.

    I really hope you don't mean the "drunk" part.

    "Go do something else..see a movie, read a poem [ do some Art, get away from the Science ]"
    -- Leon Lederman, "From Student to Scientist"

    I recently discovered music-videos on Youtube & find it's very therepeutic. Note that T. Dorigo studied music (he is a very well-rounded person: scientist, music, chess, married w/kids, sensitive to women's issues). He didn't deserve to get attacked & demonized. He deserves an apology.

    Leif Ove Andsnes plays Debussy Clair de Lune
    another link here

    "the character has lost all hope for humanity prior to the witnessing of the beauty of the night, that's why he is so angst filled and raw. but when he sees how beautiful the night is, his optimism for humanity is rekindled."
    -- thecritiquevirtuoso, Pg 2 of comments

    Strangely enough, it matches my experience in the mountains/desert at the recent Lunar Eclipse:

    It was pretty dramatic to see the "stars come out" during totality (Physics manifested in Beauty), with the harmony of crickets chirping. I have video I will shortly upload, it should be heard.

    A trip to the country, with your iPod in tow would be therepeutic. There are a lot of Canadian amateur astronomers who can direct you to such places for stargazing.

    Here are some nice Youtube music-videos:

    Chad & Jeremy/A Summer Song
    Brian Hyland/Sealed w/a Kiss
    Mamas & Papas/Dedicated to the One I Love
    Skeeter Davis/End of the World
    Association/Never My Love
    Beach Boys/Getcha Back
    Beach Boys/God only Knows
    Vivaldi Four Seasons/Anne-Sophie Mutter
    Valentina Igoshina/Chopin Prelude Op. 28 No. 15
    Aha/Take on Me
    America/A Horse with No Name
    Bobbie Gentrie/Ode to Billy Joe
    Enya/Caribbean Blue
    Paul Mauriat/Love is Blue
    Marty Robbins/El Paso
    Pachelbel/Canon in D Major
    Peter,Paul, Mary/Where Have All the Flowers Gone
    John Lennon/Imagine

    Trailer/The Red Violin
    "It's your Beauty that Summons the Music"
    [ try to relate this phrase to T. Dorigo's post ]

    Deer Hunter/End Credits
    [ raise a toast to T. Dorigo, he's a hero in my book ]

    Within Temptation/Our Farewell
    Evanescence/My Immortal

    "Sex without Love, Art without masturbation"
    -- Capt. Lionel Beckman (Art Historian), Castle Keep

    T. Dorigo was simply putting a human-interest side ("feeling") to his Physics report. As others (e.g. Stefan) have pointed out, there was no sexism detected. Myself included.

    "The Whole [ "Package" ] is Sum of the Parts [ Style & Substance ]"
    -- asian philosophy

    Look at the comments in the above Youtube videos. Their Substance=Work ("great!") & Style=Appearance ("he/she is HOT!"). It's part of the package. T. Dorigo got it RIGHT.

  52. Bee,

    Having now read Clifford post, I have to agree with you that there seems little substantive difference - except for his hysterically fluttering first paragragh - which I at first thought might be deliberate parody.

    I learned long ago that when Sean puts on his makeup in the role of "Heroic Defender of Womanhood" he loses any sense of irony, as well as most of his common sense. Clifford may be the same.

    Perhaps their indignation is real, but it sure *looks* like a pose. Every actor learns that sincerity is a key to a good performance. I think they need to work on learning to fake it.


  53. the role of "Heroic Defender of Womanhood" he loses any sense of irony, as well as most of his common sense

    True for almost anything they talk about except physics.

  54. Hi There,

    Thanks for the kind words. In fact, I didn't get drunk, I guess I'm too girly with my drinking habits ;-) (Okay, the true reason is that my bottle opener is in one of these boxes around me, but I don't know which. And I wasn't in the mood to ask the neighbor, who btw is one of my reasons for moving out.)

    That is to say, I am about to plug out the modem and actually start moving now. My previous announcement was somewhat too optimistic, since I wasn't able to get a moving van (so much about the infrastructure in Western Ontario).

    Hi Chimpanzee:

    Thanks, this is nice. 'Imagine' is one of my favourite tracks. What I've recently added to my Ipod playlist is 'Falling On' by Finger Eleven and 'So far So good' by Thornley. The latter I heard on the radio and didn't know before. Very nice voice that guy.

    Dear Amara:

    Yes, in fact I think that Tommaso had probably just the intention to raise attention by whatever means - and look how everybody played along. It's a game Lubos also likes to play, though his writing style (or the absence thereof) is even more offensive. Sean btw plays a similar game by pulling out topics that people will get upset about and comment on (Mother Theresa? The anthropic principle? And the all-time favorite women's rights). So, what's there to say. The feedback one gets for posts doesn't necessarily promote the most likeable habits. That's what I meant to express with my above sentence "Those of you who usually don't comment on good readings but only on things you are offended by might think about whether this is a good behaviour to express appreciation." - because bloggers crave for attention, and they will count it by number of comments and visitors. Getting people upset is a very good way to do get reactions.

    Hi Anonymous:

    I seriously wonder if one day it wouldn't simply be better if we all had holograms that distorted our race/gender/looks while at work like in a Phillip K Dick novel.

    Sure, how about we all pull brown paper bags over our faces while at work. Now wouldn't that significantly improve matters?



  55. Dear Prof. Anonymous:

    LM is a failed physicist, he knows it and he's bitter. Don't let failures affect your mood.

    Thanks. You know, I can live with being called a crackpot, but what pisses me off is Lubos calling me an 'appendix' of Prof. Smolin, and accuses me of 'parroting' Lee's nonsense. Hey, if I talk about Science and Democracy, DSR, Black Holes, Cosmology, GR, QFT or whatever, it must be that my 'way of thinking and judging physics mimicks [Lee]', since my 'female brain' just wouldn't be able to arrange more than three words to a complete sentence, right? That I guess is Lubos' tactic to avoid taking me seriously.

    And even that I could live with (well, I don't take him seriously either), just that I am concerned about the impression people might get about PI. That's a potential damage Lubos causes by treating people from PI (he has had similar rants about Bianca, Fotini, Tomasz, Sundance, etc) by calling them Smolians or whatever. I am not sure how many of them actually notice it (I certainly don't go around telling them to read Lubos' blog), but I am afraid that people who think about applying here for a position will stumble over his rants.



  56. Dear Bee: I'm really sorry about Lubos. Have you considered that maybe you are his archnemesis? Fortunately you're not young and impressionable, ;-) and you have some wisdom and experience. Especially about him.
    Happy move.. this time and the next one too. Ciao.

  57. Dear Amara,

    I guess you wanted to write you're not naive and impressionable instead of you're not young and impressionable ;-)

    Cheers, Stefan

  58. Thanks Amara. Well, I don't know about him, but Lubos is certainly not my 'archnemesis'. I think I left a comment at that CV post who came into my mind immediately ;-)

  59. Hi Bee,

    I inserted the paragraph about Lisa's appearance at the beginning because my posts start easy and then get harder / a way to avoid non-physicists from escaping too early on. That is the extent of my attention-seeking... I really did not think I would have generated that kind of backlash, honest.
    Of course we are no beginners and we know what gets attention and what does not - for instance, if I discuss intelligent design taking any pretext from the news I will get twice as many visitors and comments. Or mentioning other sensitive issues.

    Now, I did expect interest because of Lisa, but I thought the comment was paying homage to the interest Lisa always raises, rather than begging for it...

    Bee: don't get bitter at LM's criticism. I have been called a crackpot by him as well. I think it is something to be rather proud of than otherwise ;-)


  60. Dear Stefan, Yeah, I wasn't sure of the right word to use. Bee, in the relative transhuman scale (!) is young, but she is not 20, which is the 'young' that was in my mind when I wrote that.

    If I was told at age 20 that I was a crackpot, or that I was not capable of performing science or if I was told that my boyfriend/spouse/partner probably did my scientific work for me, then it would have had a large impact on my unconfident, fresh, 20-year-old psyche and I would have considered leaving physics. Because I was young and impressionable.

    Fortunately, those attitudes and words I faced instead in my 30s and 40s ;-), when I had more experience, more confidence, and I cared less, so they didn't cause me to want to leave the physics field. This is the good aspect of age and experience (and wisdom).

  61. Hi Stefan,

    (Response to your comment quite a few scrolls up.)

    I really appreciate that you're thinking this through, trying to understand what some of us are saying, and generally being open-minded. Thanks. I placed some further remarks about the context issue that address a number of your points. They are here.



  62. Dear Clifford,

    thank you for getting back to my question, and for your answer! So, I understand that in your opinion, even in a different wording, any remarks about the physical appearance is a no-go in this context, a blog post about the talk of a colleague.

    I think I got that point, however, please accept that I do not completly agree. I have written more about it in the comments of your blog.

    I am grateful that you took the time to explain in detail your point of view,

    Best regards,


  63. Wow. I find it amazing that all of this was in earnest. At least half the parties in this thread give off a very insecure teenage emotional vibe. It can't be very pleasant talking yourself into feeling wounded. Resentment, a form of grudge, should be reserved for serious cases of intentional abuse. The same emotions on display here, reminiscent of theological strife, have throughout history resulted in bitter conflict and even bloodshed.

    I notice that many of you seem to think the onus is on others to conform to your own standards of conduct and social values. See where that leads? Have many of you have spent part of your lives socializing? If you have, you haven't done so very observantly.

    Who cares if someone 'treats you' with somewhat less respect than the Emperor of the Universe would deserve? Dealing with that is what self-respect is for. You've all heard of it, of course?

    Let's say someone sends a contentious or even abusive reply to me. I won't care, and I might not even reply. I'm an extremely sensitive person, but I could never carry on like this. It's quite undignified.

    I just stumbled on this roadside car wreck of human futility while surfing for material on Lisa Randall.


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