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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7 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.

  2. As my late history teacher used to say, just an observation, not a judgement: Just shortly after you closed the comments on the post about Ott’s move to Finland, his then future employer backtracked and decided not to hire him after all.

  3. I don’t know Ott. I don’t know anything about the controversies surrounding him except from this blog, links here and links from them, quick internet searches, etc. It seems to follow a familiar pattern; I’m sure that we have all known people like Ott (appears to be, based on the accusations). In areas where formal rules are not always clear, lines can be crossed, one thing leads to another, signals are misinterpreted (perhaps intentionally), and so on. Again, just an observation, not a judgement. It might be that the perpetrator is so deluded that he actually doesn’t realize (until it is too late, but perhaps not even then) that he has done something significantly wrong. But there must be times when one really has to realize that one has crossed a line (Mark Brake comes to mind). In Ott’s case, it’s this (quoted from the long blog post linked to above):

    In summary, Ott created the fake identity of Uschi Gamma including an email address, website, and forum posts. He then added her to grant applications to increase his group’s diversity score, and forced some of his students to add her to papers as a co-author.

    I spent a few pleasant evenings tracking down every grant referred to in every paper that mentioned Gamma, and deduced that she was probably most instrumental in winning a large grant from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation (SFF), though she was also mentioned in papers funded by the NSF. Ott routinely spent the week before SFF’s annual visit to our department straightening the furniture, hounding us to get haircuts and wear nice clothes, and then lining us up to be “seen and not heard” during the visit.

    By total chance, I met on a plane a science grant consultant who had worked for SFF, who confirmed to me that the foundation had been aware of the Uschi Gamma fraud, had investigated, and decided to take no public action about it in order to avoid embarrassment.

    By not censuring Ott for defrauding the foundation through the invention of a fictitious researcher, SFF emboldened him and strengthened his belief that he was above the rules.

    “Uschi” is a reasonably common German name, a nickname for the reasonably common name “Ursula”. Gamma is extremely rare as a surname in any language. I am wondering what it means. Is it a nod to the Alpher, Bethe, Gamow paper? (In that case, putting Bethe’s name on was harmless. I read somewhere recently (could look it up if necessary) that he was in on the joke. There are times when this is OK, but not when fraud is involved resulting in the award of multi-million-dollar grants.) The full name was “Ursula C. T. Gamma”. C.T. could be CalTech, I suppose.

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