Science and the scientist

Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor won the 2019 Nobel Prize for physics for discovering a famous exoplanet (51 Pegasi b) in 1995. Their claim was first verified by a top astronomer at the time named Geoff Marcy. He was later found guilty of having harassed many of his students between 2001 and 2010.

Azeen Ghorayshi of Buzzfeed News published an excellent thread detailing how Marcy’s star as an astronomer rose at a time coinciding with many of his transgressions. As Ghorayshi observes, “Marcy’s place in the science—in a buzzy field, and [with lots of money]—became part of the power used against them.” It wasn’t that Marcy would harass a woman and the woman would continue to be an astronomer; she would often leave the profession entirely.

This should make us wonder: if not for Marcy and numerous other researcher-teachers like him, what would all those strong, wonderful women (who finally outed him) have accomplished? The answer is likely lots. So the celebration of the work of men like Marcy doesn’t only concern whether a ‘morally innocent’ body of knowledge is ‘tainted’ by their actions as people but in fact strikes that moral neutrality down in two ways: the work gave Marcy power in the academic structure, and Marcy used that power to harass and drive women out of academia.

Ultimately what Marcy achieved and who Marcy is aren’t separate. The science and the scientist are inseparable – just different labels for the same entity at two points on a continuum, the same continuum that Richard Feynman lived on and which Jeffrey Epstein enabled.

John B. Goodenough, who won the 2019 chemistry Nobel Prize yesterday for his part in inventing the lithium-ion battery, has said scientists’ inventions are morally neutral. They’re not, but saying so spares one the responsibility of confronting the consequences of its use. Lithium-ion batteries may not seem to have many consequences of this sort because their use has become so prevalent, abstracted through many layers of industrialisation, but what if one of the laureates had harassed a colleague who could have contributed?

This is why Marcy’s work as an astronomer is also morally debilitated.