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I've been amazed at the small explosion over Tommaso Dorigo's post concerning Lisa Randall's talk at a recent conference at CERN. He described her physically as well as the feel of the room when she began to present, and then proceeded to give a detailed account of the physics.

Asymptotia denounces him, Arcadian Functor defends him. Lots of debate about the objectification of women, the PC police, "sexophobia," and Italian culture in the comments on those three blogs lately. The angriest arguments have been concerned with what women face in this male-dominated field, most of them centered around women as eye-candy.

I get the impression that Dorigo was surprised by the sudden storm, and his main defense has been (as a clever but unknown 18-year-old pointed it out), that the subtitle of his blog is "private thoughts of a physicist and chessplayer." that Lisa Randall is a public figure and, like other celebrities, is open to such comments. [edited 2:14pm 8/31/07]

Andrea Giammanco, commenting on the now moderately-infamous Randall post (25) wrote
I remember a conversation with some colleagues at the cafeteria, about two other colleagues that I knew and they didn’t. When talking about the male one, I was asked “is he smart?”, and when talking about the female one, the question was “is she pretty?”
I am ashamed to say that it took me a couple of seconds before saying “ehy, this is a textbook example of sexism on the workplace!”

But I've heard this conversation go the other way many times, talking about a lab partner or coworker. Often, women ask, "Is he cute?" before "Is he smart?" Political correctness will not stop people from noticing when a colleague is attractive, though it may keep people from talking about it.

So what if Dorigo noticed Randall's body? He noticed her discussion of the capacities and limitations of the LHC in far greater detail. Eye-candy is pretty and useless. In Dorigo's estimation, Randall is clearly beautiful and brilliant. And as long as he isn't discussing her looks in a professional setting or engaging in unwanted flirtation, I can't see a reason to condemn him. While many people consider blogs a professional space, Dorigo makes it clear in his subtitle that his is a personal record. Public, but not professional.


  1. Hi Alpinekat,

    thank you for the account of the incident.

    I have to say that my pointing out the subtitle of my blog came before I read the comment on Asymptotia by the 18yo commenter. But it's a small point. My main defense still is, that Lisa is a public figure, and so the kind of comments I make are totally legal.


  2. Hello Tommaso,

    No problem. Sorry for misconstruing a those points -- when you said you'd been outsmarted by an 18-year-old, I figured that he'd come up with it first.


  3. Hi,

    Please see the remarks by Jennifer Ouellette (another science writer) on the comment thread of my post - she is responding to your comment, but also, I hope a later comment of mine explains why it is quite a bit different for you, a science writer to bring such things up in a workplace context, vs a colleague of hers. I also address several of the other points (about why I think that Lisa being a public figure is irrelevant in this case, and so forth).

    This is not about political correctness. It is too easy to jump to that term without thinking. It is about being mindful of the unequal sexual dynamics in the workplace and the extension of the workplace created by a colleague reporting on a seminar in a widely read blog (i.e. not private) - and (among other things) the impact the magnification of such dynamics has on young women trying to make their way in or into the field.

    My full remarks are here.



  4. Hi Clifford,

    Thanks for your detailed response, and I agree that this debate is about a good deal more than political correctness. You have probably seen that I replied to your full remarks on your blog -- apologies that the post was rather lengthy!


  5. hi Alpinekat,

    Some thoughts:
    - blogs are a forum for agreement/disagreement -- now we (the scientific community) are deciding whether or not she's attractive. When it prefaces her talk, it ties her fitness to research with her sexual attractiveness.
    - where does the propriety and relevance of such physical descriptions end? Are there clear boundaries or fuzzy edges between "she looks fit", "awesome body" , "nice rack", "must be great in bed".
    - For what occupations is personal appearance relevant? "My prostate surgeon is so sexy!"
    - The blog author writes "My main defense still is, that Lisa is a public figure, and so the kind of comments I make are totally legal." This public-figure-defense is not valid. While people do comment more on public figures, the frequency of it doesn't make it valid. A simple analogy is driving above the speed limit: people do it all the time, but it's still not legal.
    - What is "political correctness"? By prefixing with "political", it becomes merely a gesture -- chasing the image of correctness, instead of just being correct.
    - Two cultural differences come to mind: 1) Europeans frequently include a mug shot with job applications, Americans don't. 2) Europeans think romantic/sexual relationships between students and advisors is acceptable, Americans don't.

  6. Hi Mimi,

    the criticism to my introductory sentence had as a foundation the fact that it was allegedly harmful for women in science. I think this is a bogus criticism given the fact that Lisa herself has appeared on Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the like, and has discussed the fact that women physicists should care a bit more about their outfits. She said "a large percentage of my female colleagues have no clue on how they should dress in their professional environment" (or something very close to that).

    Having said that, I also have to say that, if I were commenting in a professional environment a seminar, I would never include a description of the speaker's outfit. But a blog is not a professional environment. It is public, but it is personal.

    I concur - attitudes are different on this issue on the two sides of the Atlantic.


  7. Oh Alpinekat, about your comment number 2: I said the audience at Asymptotia had been outsmarted by a 18yo, not me :)


  8. Hi Mimi,
    Responding to your thoughts in order:
    - blogs are more than just a forum for agreement and disagreement. They are a forum for dissemination of information and sharing personal observations and experiences. I haven’t seen any debate in this tiny corner of the scientific community over whether or not Randall is attractive, although there’s been both amiable and hostile discussion of the professional environment of women in physics.
    - Propriety: From the range of responses to Dorigo’s relatively tame remarks, I’d say there’s no cut-and-dried rule that determines what is appropriate or not in a blog.
    Relevance: Certainly, Randall’s appearance is irrelevant to her research, but it is relevant to Dorigo’s experience of seeing her talk.
    - Ideally, appearance would be irrelevant. Realistically, it’s not. Personal appearance factors into charisma.
    - Actually, laws concerning the privacy of public figures are significantly looser than those of more ordinary citizens. If Bill Clinton had been the town electrician, a journalist reporting on his fidelity to his wife could be slapped with a lawsuit on grounds of defamation.
    - “Chasing the image of correctness” is a very adept phrase to describe what I mean when I say “politically correct.” If Dorigo had omitted his reflections on Randall’s body from his post, it would simply be the image of correctness. So, the question becomes, “What is to be gained from self-censorship?” In this case, I think, not much.
    - Interesting. I wasn’t aware.

    Hi Tommaso,
    Oi, well, I totally botched that one. And would you quit outsmarting me on my home territory?



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