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Nobel physics winner criticized over controversial video

When Canadian Donna Strickland won the Nobel prize for physics this week, she was hailed for advancing...

Posted: Oct 5, 2018 7:33 PM
Updated: Oct 5, 2018 7:33 PM

When Canadian Donna Strickland won the Nobel prize for physics this week, she was hailed for advancing the visibility of women within the science. But video footage that recently emerged of one of her fellow winners suggests sexism may still be thriving in the field.

Now garnering thousands of hits online, the clip from 2010 shows Gérard Mourou performing alongside scantily clad women in a promotional video intended to showcase his work on laser technology.

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The French scientist was announced this week as one of three winners of the prestigious physics award. He and Strickland shared the 9 million Swedish kronor (about $1 million) prize with American Arthur Ashkin for their work in laser physics.

The announcement garnered much attention as Strickland became the first female physics laureate in 55 years. Her win came a day after the European nuclear research center Cern reportedly suspended Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University over comments that the discipline "was invented and built by men."

But while advocates for equality in the lab have been heartened by Strickland's win, the emergence of the controversial footage shows that Strumia's view may be more widespread.

Running to almost four minutes, the film is called "Have you seen ELI," a reference to the ELI Delivery Consortium, a European research collaboration that Mourou is credited with initiating.

The clip begins with a boy appearing to take an interest in optics. Viewers then see Mourou -- of the Haut college of the École Polytechnique near Paris -- teaching students in a classroom. A young female student flutters her eyelids at him to reveal a hidden message: "I love ELI."

'The alpha males of physics'

But the footage and Mourou's depiction as a sports car-driving alpha male is not the main source of controversy. What angered critics is a dancing scene where Mourou and two male colleagues are accompanied by women in lab coats and -- in some cases -- little else.

Two of the women can be seen dancing provocatively before eventually stripping off their lab coats to reveal tight-fitting tops and hot pants. The video was circulated by students and professors at the renowned French research institute where Mourou teaches and was seen in scientific circles.

It resurfaced this week after the Nobel prize announcement, thanks to Leonid Schneider, a German scientific journalist. He tweeted a link to his followers and later followed it up with an article he published on his For Better Science blog under the title "The alpha males of physics."

"Women scientists are really shocked because this is what they apparently experience in the science field," Schneider said.

"I wonder if he (Mourou) would still get the Nobel Prize if the Nobel Assembly were aware of this video.

"A Nobel prize winner should be a role model for other scientists, not just someone publishing many important papers."

Mourou released a statement Friday saying he was "sincerely and profoundly sorry" for the video.

"At the time that this video was made, the objective was to popularize the research being done within the framework of the ELI project and to break down the austerity that the field of science can sometimes transmit," Mourou said in a statement released by the École Polytechnique.

"It is important that the scientific community recognize the role as well as the importance of each and every researcher, regardless of gender."

Jean-Paul Chambaret, a friend and colleague of Mourou's who also appeared in the film, told CNN it was shot during Paris Ville Lumière, a big scientific event. He said the video came about after he and Mourou presented a project on laser technology to children at the event. It was intended to "present the research team in a humorous way," he told Le Monde.

France's National Center for Scientific Research is credited as a producer of the video, but a spokesman for the center told CNN that "management neither commissioned nor produced this film, which is solely the personal initiative of the researcher and his team. And our organization has never relayed this film. In addition, many CNRS people think it's an inappropriate way to promote science."

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