Bad Apples

Today, the astronomy grapevine, Twitter and Facebook were lit up by the revelation that Geoff Marcy, one of the world’s foremost astronomers, had been reprimanded by Berkeley for multiple episodes of sexual harassment, committed over a ten year period. Marcy, frequently tipped as a future Nobelist, pioneered the discovery of exoplanets – planets orbiting stars other than our sun.

The story was broken by Buzzfeed, and Marcy has posted a half-assed apology on his website. 

Berkeley is a fantastic place. It is not just one of the world’s leading universities, it is arguably the top public university on the planet, a wellspring of innovation and originality. So I would love to see Berkeley take the lead in making science a hospitable place for women. I would like to see Berkeley openly ask how this happened inside their community, to investigate whether Marcy is the only bad apple in the barrel, and do what it takes to become an institution within which everyone who earns a place can thrive.

Of course, we know how this sort of thing happens – it happens because “everyone knows” who the problems are, but nothing happens to stop them. Sooner or later, astronomy and the rest of academic science will face a reckoning over its long-term acquiescence in the face of bad behaviour by prominent and not-so-prominent individuals. Theft, fabrication and plagiarism are all sacking offences for scientists and we know it. But behaviour that blights careers and drives students out of the field often goes unrecognised and unpunished, or brings only the mildest of reprimands. This has to change.

CODA: Image via Flickr; Stephanie Watson

The Weekly World News

Whenever you throw a party, there is always someone who double-dips the guacamole. In this case the jerk was Ephraim Hardcastle, a pseudonymous correspondent in the Daily Mail. This nimrod thought the most important thing to say about one of the biggest science stories in 50 years was that two of the experts asked to appear on the BBC news that night were both women of colour. Hardcastle’s shtick is similar to that of the old Weekly World News columnist Ed Anger — with the difference that Anger was a conscious parody. And while it is hard to take Hardcastle seriously, he caused real pain to real people in order to get off a few shots in a drive-by attack on “diversity”, and followed it with a non-apology worthy of Arthur Fonzarelli. 

For the record, there is no person in the world better qualified to comment on the BICEP results than Hiranya Peiris. As a PhD student, she was the lead-author on the first-ever paper to put serious constraints on inflation with microwave background data and she has worked on two major space-based CMB experiments. [Full disclosure: I have collaborated with Hiranya for 10 years and count her as a close friend.] Ironically, the resulting brouhaha saw both UCL and the Royal Astronomical Society spell out her qualifications: not just Cambridge, Princeton and Chicago but half a dozen fancy fellowships and prizes, any one of which makes for a CV that hums and crackles when it sits in a pile of job applications. So next time anyone needs a leading British astrophysicist for a TV appearance they will know who to call. 

The Mail has a gift for missing the point. While this may not be in the same league as backing the wrong side in the run-up to World War Two, if there is a story here it is that British astronomy is no longer the almost exclusive domain of white men. 

You can read Peiris’ own commentary on the affair is in the THES and you can sign a petition calling for a genuine apology here.