A Breakthrough for a Bigot

You may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to Cambridge next year to take up a Lectureship. Yesterday I heard the news that Dr Wall (who is currently at Stanford) has been awarded a New Horizons Breakthrough Prize of $100,000. Three such prizes are awarded each year for outstanding early career researchers.

This is just a reminder that, when he isn’t doing theoretical physics, Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. For example, one piece included bigoted generalizations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often? The press release from Stanford does not say.

You can read his whole piece for yourself* and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

(*He’s deleted it, so I linked to an archived version…)

Some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private. He has himself chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that it’s acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

I just wonder whether the Breakthrough Prize would have been awarded to a person with outspoken racist or sexist views? And should prizes be awarded to people who are good at science regardless of attitudes that cast severe doubt on their ability or willingness to foster a spirit of inclusivity within which other scientists can flourish?

P.S. Note the diversity of the panel that made this award!

18 Responses to “A Breakthrough for a Bigot”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    When people having disagreeing worldviews encounter each other, what matters is not what those worldviews say about where truth is, but what they say about how to treat people who hold different views; and also the extent to which those instructions are heeded.

    I am sceptical of the notion of a ‘welcoming environment’; it is *people* who are, or are not, welcoming. In a workplace there will be persons holding differing views about everything from football teams to politics to religion. It is an important part of life to meet people holding differing views from oneself on all these subjects, and learn to value them as being just as human as oneself. Should sexuality be an exception?

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s not really about disagreeing worldviews’, it’s about one person publicly announcing that some class of people to whom that person does not belong are somehow of lower status.

      It is largely people who create the `environment’ too.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Your first paragraph is a misunderstanding of evangelical Christianity, which holds that all humans are in the bin without Christ, and that those who come to Christ are not better by their own merits.

      • Whose first paragraph?

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Peter’s paragraph to which I was replying, which began “it’s not really about…”

      • It seems to me that it is Aron Wall who is misunderstanding something. “…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community” certainly sounds like he is attributing lower status to this group.

        I might add that there are straight people who are promiscuous, some notoriously so; whether reckless or obscene depends on the definitions.

  2. “P.S. Note the diversity of the panel that made this award!”

    Diversity or lack of? I recognize a bit more than half the names; most or all of them work in the USA (though many, or their ancestors, came from elsewhere recently enough that they are not called Wayne (Who?)) and all are men. Certainly not all are gay. πŸ™‚

  3. “Straight marriage was already on the rocks, and its boundaries had become disordered to the point where many people could no longer tell what was the difference between it, and another union based primarily on romantic thrills.”

    Is he speaking from experience?

    I think that he’s solved the black-hole–information-loss problem: centuries of enlightenment down the drain of his blog. 😐

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve just joined a union. It hasn’t led to any romantic thrills yet though.

      • Your recent comment regarding HeII gave you away; you’ve forgotten basic atomic physics. If you hadn’t, it would be immediately clear that unionization is the same thing as reunification, though of course the new partners are very probably not the original ones. πŸ™‚

        Why isn’t there a prize of $100,000 for the best pun of the century? 😦

      • reunification —> recombination.

        OK, deduct $5000 for the typo. Where are my %995,000? πŸ™‚

  4. […] via A Breakthrough for a Bigot β€” In the Dark […]

  5. I found this particularly chilling:

    “Also, if any people in gay relationships are reading this, I don’t hate you; I want only good things to happen to you. It’s just we don’t agree on which things are in fact good.”

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter, as you are talking about a specific person, would you consider alerting him to your comments and this thread so that he can make an individual response?

    • Gegenbeispiel Says:

      Done. An email (not from me) pointing at his blog was circulated to all DAMTP staff incl. Aaron Wall (and retirees like me).

      • Gegenbeispiel Says:

        I meant at this blog, not Aaron’s.

      • telescoper Says:

        I noticed a number of hits yesterday coming from the direction of Cambridge. Among them there are two Cambridge University webmail servers from which I got traffic (obviously from people clicking on links within emails). Interestingly, these also identify the person whose email the link was in. I see a number of eminent professors have read the piece!

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