Canadian scientists slam Italian professor's lecture on gender and physics
An amateur photographer takes a picture in the assembly room of the elements of the LHC (large hadron collider) at the European Particle Physics laboratory (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland in this photo taken Aug. 7, 2010. (AP / Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi)
The Canadian Press
Published Saturday, October 6, 2018 5:19PM EDT
Canadian scientists and professors are among hundreds that have signed a statement condemning what they call a "fundamentally unsound" presentation by an Italian physicist on gender issues, and they say they are concerned about prevailing sexism in science.
The statement, posted on the website Particles for Justice, was signed by members of the scientific community from around the world. It said that Alessandro Strumia argued in a recent speech to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) that in the field of physics, women are less capable than men.
"As particle physicists, we are appalled by Strumia's actions and his stated views on women in high energy physics," read the statement, adding that the signatories believe "the science case presented by Strumia was fundamentally unsound."
CERN, which hosted the seminar "High Energy Theory and Gender" from Sept. 26 to 28, wrote in a statement that it suspended Strumia on Monday because his talk risked "overshadowing" the message of the event, which focused on equal opportunities in physics.
A spokesman for the organization wrote in an email that Strumia is a "visiting scientist" and his "presentation, with its attacks on individuals, was unacceptable in any professional context."
The organization confirmed to The Associated Press that the presentation included the sentence: "Physics invented and built by men, it's not by invitation."
Heather Logan, a physics professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, said she signed the statement condemning Strumia's talk because she found his comments "horrifying," and she wants young people entering the field to know his message is "discriminatory" and not welcome.
"There are truly excellent women in my field," said Logan. "Without their contributions, we would be impoverished as a field."
In a phone interview with The Associated Press, Strumia said he doesn't believe men are better than women in physics and he thinks his suspension wasn't warranted.
"There is a political group that wants women, and other people, to believe that they are victims," he said.
"They suspended me because it's true ... and it's contrary to the political line. And I hope CERN will at some point understand. I hope this is just the first self-preservation instinct.
"Somebody had to speak," said Strumia, who is also a professor at the University of Pisa in Italy.
Logan said she is "astounded" that Strumia could be trusted to teach physics and supervise students in science.
"It's a betrayal," she said. "It's a betrayal to the integrity of the field."
Kristine Spekkens, an astronomer who teaches at Queen's University and the Royal Military College of Canada, said she signed the statement because she believes Strumia's comments were "incorrect and insidious."
"He used a platform to communicate a message that is unfounded," said Spekkens, who is also a member of the Canadian Astronomical Society's equity and inclusivity committee.
She said his message is also "discouraging" for women in science and those who are just entering the field.
Robert Brandenberger, a physics professor at McGill University who was also a signatory, said people of colour continue to be underrepresented in his classes.
"The history of physics has been dominated by white males," he said.
"If you're a woman in a mostly male environment of course it's difficult."
Spekkens said she hopes that with hundreds signing the statement condemning Strumia's comments, it sends the message that there should be diversity in every industry and field, including science.
"If the goal of the scientific community is to understand the world and how the universe works, then diversity is a really important aspect of accomplishing that goal," she said.
- With files from The Associated Press