One of the points I make in my science classes is that scientists are not superheroes. Scientists are human beings capable of all the most wonderful and most terrifying things that the rest of our species can do. While they may know a little more about how the universe operates, that doesn’t necessarily make them a better human being (though I also argue that to be a complete human, you do need to understand some of the basic operation of the cosmos).
Tim Hunt is a Nobel Prize winning biochemist. His work is not trivial – he discovered that a group of chemicals called cyclins are critical in triggering parts of the cell cycle (the most notable part of which is mitosis) which gave huge insight into how mitosis starts after fertilization (as in creating just about all higher lifeforms including humans), and may give critical insights into how the cell cycle can be arrested (like in cancer).
Still, even if you make a discovery that may one day end a lot of suffering and pain for our species, you need to realize that 2015 isn’t 1985 or 1955 … we live in a world where every last word can be cataloged, saved, and scrutinized by the planet.
Such was the case this past Wednesday when Hunt was in South Korea addressing science journalists (aka: one of the groups you must be very, very careful what you are saying in front of). That’s why when you talk about working with women in a scientific laboratory, and the best you have for these journalists is: “they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry” … he must have been strongly ignorant of what was coming next.
In the life sciences, women have made extraordinary strides in the past 15-20 years in terms of the number of degrees conferred, but in the physical sciences, and in scientific leadership positions, women sadly trail. To make matters worse (I am going to posit an opinion here), I suspect that some areas of science draw men who are uncomfortable around women (because historically they weren’t around much), and they don’t really know how to act around women. The end result is that women in a lot of lab settings are not treated as well as they might elsewhere, and may not be given as many opportunities for advancement as men. Thus, when a notable Nobel Prize winner, even if he was joking as he claimed, says shit like this, it just reinforces the idea that there are important men who really don’t think women can do what men can. Needless to say, Hunt has apologized and resigned some of his professional positions.
That said, showing that there are plenty of great people out there, there is a phenomenal twitter account, almost exclusively women in science, posting pictures as to how distracting and teary eyed they are while going about the work of science. It is quite funny, while also being a giant international middle finger to people who might harbor any doubt that women are as talented and capable as men when it comes to unlocking how our universe operates.