Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned

This is a lengthy but important post about the recent episodes of harassment at Caltech centred around Christian Ott. I’ve blogged in relation to this myself a few times; see here. It’s not a comfortable read, which is precisely why you should read it.

One of the worst things about the way institutions handle investigations into harassment and related disciplinary matters is that the system does not include any provisions to bring closure to the victims. Indeed, victims are sometimes not even informed as to the outcome of the investigation.

You can make your own mind up about the behaviour of Caltech as an institution. All I’ll say is that far more people were affected than I was previously aware of.

Casey Handmer's blog

Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned

Casey Handmer 2019

What is this?

In the wake of major catastrophes, it is common practice for organizations to publish a “Lessons Learned” report to help prevent future occurrences. The largest public catastrophe in which I’ve ever been involved occurred in the Caltech astrophysics department between 2010 and 2019. Former Caltech professor and internationally disgraced astrophysicist Christian Ott harmed, harassed, and abused numerous students, postdocs, and research fellows. Despite thousands of hours of investigation, no public “findings” or “lessons learned” report has ever been made available. This document is my attempt to fill this need.


It has been historically conventional to conceal this sort of institutional malpractice, with the effect that the hard-learned lessons are forgotten and that harassment, particularly of underrepresented minorities, is still common. The intent of this document is to undermine the traditional assumption that abused students will graduate or…

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2 Responses to “Caltech astrophysics and harassment: Lessons learned”

  1. I didn’t know many of the details. No one comes out of with much credit. Bullying (and worse) happens wherever people are in a position of uncontrolled power. There are more cases in astronomy than we would like to think. The post puts a lot of the blame on the academics, but in their defence they often get very little guidance so make mistakes. And academics too can suffer bullying: I have seen numbers of 5% reporting so. Victims are reluctant to go public, especially students. Universities by and large are sensitive to the vulnerabilities of their students, but once a case has happened will want to limit financial liabilities. It is important to catches cases as early as possible.

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