Europe’s leading physics lab suspended a theoretical physicist Monday after he railed against efforts to include women in physics in his talk at a conference on gender in science.
Alessandro Strumia, a visiting scientist at CERN with an appointment at the University of Pisa in Italy, spoke at a workshop on high-energy physics and gender at CERN on Friday.
Strumia told the audience that men are better represented in theoretical physics because of their inherent interests. Also, he claimed, there’s a wider variation in intelligence among men compared to women — which would mean that the smartest men tend to be smarter than the smartest women.
“Physics is not sexist against women,” he concluded. “However, truth does not matter because it’s part of a political battle coming from outside.”
Strumia also blasted what he claimed is discrimination against men in hiring to senior positions, citing his own failure to win a job at Italy’s prestigious National Institute for Nuclear Physics. His presentation included a slide comparing citations of his papers to those from a woman who was hired.
Strumia did not immediately respond to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News. But he told the BBC: “People say that physics is sexist, physics is racist. I made some simple checks and discovered that it wasn't, that it was becoming sexist against men and said so.”
“We can clearly not tolerate such a behaviour at CERN,” lab spokesperson Arnaud Marsollier told BuzzFeed News by email.
Scientists at the CERN conference and elsewhere shared outraged reactions to Strumia’s presentation on social media.
Scientists who criticized Strumia’s talk were concerned at the signals it sent to young researchers aiming for a career in physics.
Strumia’s presentation echoed the themes of the infamous “anti-diversity memo” circulated at Google by then-employee James Damore in the summer of 2017. But while Damore was a fairly junior engineer, Strumia is a professor at his university in Italy, and was a visiting scientist at CERN, with a position there that was supposed to extend until November 2020.
CERN was established in 1954 at the height of the Cold War, and is an icon of scientific excellence and European unity. Based at the Swiss-French border near Geneva, it has 22 member nations. Scientists working there have made a series of groundbreaking discoveries in fundamental physics.
In 2012, physicists working at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, a long-sought particle that explains why matter has mass.
On Sunday, CERN issued a statement denouncing Strumia’s presentation, and also removed his slides from its website. CERN updated the statement Monday to say that Strumia had been suspended while the lab investigates breaches of the institution’s code of conduct, which requires that staff and visiting scientists “abstain from and actively discourage discrimination in all forms.”
Strumia's presentation compared citations to his papers to those from one woman who was hired for a position at Italy's National Institute for Nuclear Physics. An earlier version of this article suggested that two women were hired.