And the story had started so well. Two weeks ago Genzel and his American competitor Andrea Ghez, together with theorist Roger Penrose, won the Nobel Prize in physics. The reason? The years of intensive search of both Genzel and Ghez for the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, an object so massive that even light cannot escape its attraction and so mysterious that our understanding of reality within it invariably crumbles .
However, the joyful mood that the announcement sparked among astronomers has turned to anger in some since the offending interview was released on Thursday. ‘Many people in our close-knit community are shocked and disappointed,’ says astrophysicist Sera Markoff (University of Amsterdam).
In Der Spiegel Genzel talks about the fierce competition between his group and that of the American Ghez – a competition he invariably won, he emphasizes. ‘We were always ahead. We always got the results first. ‘
Old white men
Not very courteous for a fresh Nobel laureate, but then Genzel also states plainly that he is convinced that he and Ghez won only because she is a woman.
So here’s Reinhard Genzel, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics, saying that the reason Andrea Ghez shared in the prize – the reason they both won * at all * – is because she’s a woman.
I’m not exaggerating. He literally says this. https://t.co/Aqerns2by7
– Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) October 18, 2020
‘Just look at the criticism when the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded’, he says, among other things. ‘Three more old white men, people said. […] Sometimes the problem is also that in order to improve gender balance we put women in the selection committee of the awards. But with that we lose half of the best female candidates. ‘
‘I was not aware that there are only about five female researchers,’ astronomer Yvette Cendes (Harvard & Smithsonian) responds coolly on Twitter. And she is not the only one to whom Genzel’s statements go wrong. ‘Totally unnecessary’, responds astronomer Jonathan Pritchard (Imperial College London). ‘If you can’t be better than this in your own brain, at least try on the outside’, says Jonathan Fortney (UC Santa Cruz). Physicist Concettina Sfienti (University of Mainz) probably captures the mood best together: ‘If you’re a jerk, a Nobel Prize doesn’t suddenly make you a nice person.’
Come ON man. Come ON. I’ve been thinking about this all day. Just go back to your velvety Max Planck Institute chair and sit down.
If you can’t actually be better inside your brain, just do better on the outside. https://t.co/IywGZw1rqQ
– Jonathan Fortney • OMG Wear a Mask! • #BLM (@jjfplanet) October 19, 2020
A PhD ceremony at the University of Amsterdam ends with the statement that the new Dr. should never forget their responsibility to science and society. If only such a statement was required from @NobelPrize winners. Instead we get bile from churlish men with no grace or dignity. https://t.co/Euz2U8ua6S
– Phil Uttley (@catellus) October 18, 2020
No entitlement to performance
In an extensive comment on Facebook, Markoff writes that the interview follows a familiar narrative that every talented member of a minority will deal with. It goes roughly like this: X only got Y because they are Z ‘, she writes.
According to her, such statements give rise to the false suggestion that people in minorities receive preferential treatment. ‘It is a great pity that someone as powerful and influential as Reinhard, whom I greatly respect as a scientist, shows himself to be such a sour winner. I would like to live in a world where people don’t think that celebrating the achievements of others nullifies their own. ‘
There’s something really dishonorable in Genzel’s backhanded suggestion here that they only got the Nobel Prize because Ghez is female. Completely uncalled for.https: //t.co/OHbeSXsKW8
– Jonathan Pritchard (@jr_pritchard) October 18, 2020
According to Genzel, the first woman to win a Nobel for astro only won because she’s a woman when really he was scientifically ahead of her the whole time. Also screw EHT, their science isn’t solid. Sure, my dude, sure 🤨😒🙄 https://t.co/tIKUoUoLHo
– Dr. Katelin S. Pumpkins (@Katelinsaurus) October 18, 2020
When asked for a response, Genzel says that his statements in the interview have been taken out of context, and emphasizes his respect for Ghez as a scientist and colleague. That Andrea as a woman increased our chances of winning has been misinterpreted. That should show modesty, but Der Spiegel distorted that. My apologies.’
Incidentally, since last year the organization of the Nobel Prize has explicitly asked people who are allowed to make nominations to take into account diversity in gender, geographic location and research topic. Of all winners in the exact Nobel Prize categories, less than five percent are women.