It seems like the men should say something

  Art by Porter McDonald

Art by Porter McDonald

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The first thing I noticed about Lawrence Krauss was his shoes. I was waiting in a coffee line at the annual Breakthrough Discuss conference, on the campus of Stanford University. It was mid-April. Space experts from around the world, including an early career NASA scientist with whom I was making small talk, were here to share ideas about life beyond Earth and interstellar propulsion.

“Check out those shoes,” the scientist said, as she pointed to a purple pair of space-themed sneakers through a sea of legs jostling for coffee and tea. Neither of us could see who was wearing them, and it wasn't until later I realized they belonged to Krauss, the celebrity physicist accused of sexually harassing multiple women for more than a decade.

BuzzFeed exposed Krauss back in February. While he conceded to making some women feel uncomfortable, he denied any serious wrongdoings, and Arizona State University placed him on paid leave to conduct an investigation. Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo have restricted his campus access. The Center for Inquiry suspended relations with him, and he resigned from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Three weeks after the Breakthrough Discuss conference, I learned that the conference's parent group, Breakthrough Initiatives, has told Krauss not to participate in any more Breakthrough activities until Arizona State completes its investigation. Krauss has also been placed on leave from his advisory role on a Breakthrough-sponsored interstellar propulsion project.

The #MeToo movement is finally starting to push the problem of sexual harassment in STEM out of the shadows. But Krauss's appearance at Breakthrough—and the lack of initial reaction it drew—says a lot about the amount of work still yet to be done. It showed me that men, including myself, can still do a lot more when it comes to speaking out and supporting women.

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Until the BuzzFeed story broke, I didn't know much about Krauss beyond the fact that he wrote a book on the physics of Star Trek. The Breakthrough conference was the first time I saw him in person. In fact, I had to Google his picture to make sure it was him, because I couldn't believe he was there.

And that's the thing—he wasn't just there, he was THERE. He chatted with peers. He ate with prestigious scientists. In the conference hall, he sat in front, where there were two rows of cloth-covered tables for VIPs. He even challenged a NASA engineer after one talk, declaring a proposed propulsion drive to be based on bunk physics.

It's not like Krauss was actively harassing women. But I was astonished that banishment from three universities wasn't enough to keep him away from an invitation-only conference on another campus. I told a friend who wasn't there, and she (jokingly) told me to kick Krauss in the balls. I told my wife I couldn't believe he was strolling around like nothing happened. Well, yeah, she said. That's the kind of confidence that allows powerful men to force themselves on women.

So why wasn't anyone saying something? Should I say something?

Broadly speaking, there's a subconscious cost-benefit analysis at work when men decide whether or not to speak out about sexual harassment. Unfortunately for women, there are a lot of perceived costs—and not a lot of benefits. We’re afraid we’ll be kicked out of the men's club. We might judge the situation incorrectly. Sometimes we’re dopes and don’t notice harassment at all. We don’t want to be seen as being a hero for our own benefit. We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. And when social media is involved, well… have you met the Internet? It’s not exactly forgiving for missteps.

There's also an underlying fear of being hypocritical. Do we have our own shit in order when we speak up? Many of us, myself included, can recall times we could have used our own swift kick in the balls.

When men with such a well-documented history of harassment like Krauss fall, I find it comforting to think of them as monsters; societal outliers we can distance ourselves from. So, seeing Krauss at Breakthrough Discuss acting normal—and wearing cool shoes!—was jarring. Is he really that much of an aberration?

When Krauss attacked the NASA engineer's presentation, people following the conference online took notice. The first person I saw speak out was Alessondra Springmann, a planetary science Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona. Sondy is a fellow Tucsonan, and an IRL friend. She fired off a tweet using the conference hashtag:

"Why is Lawrence Krauss at Breakthrough #Discuss2018? Who invited him? Who sits next to him? Who calls on him to ask questions?”

In another tweet, she added:

"Sitting next to him, calling on him, etc. enables predators like Krauss and others AND sends signals to women: you’re not wanted here. We value “science” and prestige over your safety and productivity.”

More people chimed in on Twitter. The majority were women, including astrobiologist Lucianne Walkowicz, who shared a letter she wrote to her Breakthrough Listen advisory board colleagues. (To clarify, there are multiple Breakthrough initiatives funded by the same benefactor, tech entrepreneur Yuri Milner. Discuss was the conference we were at. Listen searches for extraterrestrial signals. Starshot hopes to send spacecraft to Alpha Centauri. Prize awards cash to groundbreaking scientists. Also, for full disclosure: Prize funded part of my travel to attend Discuss.)

Eventually, astrophysicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein put the matter to me directly:

"Do you know why Lawrence Krauss was welcomed to attend?” she tweeted to me. I had no idea, and told her so.

"Seems like people who are there, especially men, should say something."

"Good point,” I quickly replied, before I could chicken out. "I will ask about it next break.”

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Why is Lawrence Krauss at Breakthrough #Discuss2018? Who invited him? Who sits next to him? Who calls on him to ask questions?

Chanda's tweets pointed out something extra insidious about the fact that I had to be guilted and prodded into saying something about Krauss: I'm a reporter! It's my job to say things; to ask tough questions.

From the moment I saw him, I knew that if I spoke up on social media, or mentioned it to the conference organizers, I might create a stir. And then it would become my job to answer the questions Sondy asked: Who invited him? Who sits next to him? Who calls on him to ask questions? I didn't want to deal with that! I came to Breakthrough to write about "science"—in quotes, as Sondy put it—not serial harassers.

But how many times have men turned our backs on women in the name of "science"? Sorry ladies, we've got no time to fix systemic injustice, there's "science" to be done! And besides, "science" will fix everything anyway! Just wait until you see our plans for space utopia; you're gonna love it.

"Science" was a weak excuse for shirking my duties as both a man and a reporter. And now, some of the same women who spend a lot of mental energy fighting injustice were picking up the burden once again.

During the next break, I asked two Breakthrough Discuss public affairs officers if they knew why Krauss was there, considering his history. They promised to get me answers. By then, the last session of the conference was starting.

Later, I found out Krauss was an advisor for Starshot, the interstellar propulsion initiative. This made him the second high-profile Breakthrough advisor to be implicated in a sexual harassment scandal. Geoff Marcy, the UC Berkeley astronomer who was similarly exposed by Buzzfeed in October 2015, resigned from Breakthrough Listen just three days after the story came out. Krauss, on the other hand, didn't resign and was not prohibited from attending Breakthrough Discuss.

On Friday, May 4, Breakthrough sent me this statement:

Geoff Marcy was never employed by the Breakthrough Foundation and acted as an independent consultant to the Breakthrough Listen project. He was advised to vacate his advisory position after the final completion of the university investigation. Lawrence Krauss was never employed by the Breakthrough Foundation and acted as an independent advisor to the Breakthrough Starshot project. He was then put on leave from this advisory role, and was advised to avoid any further interaction with the Foundation until the results of ASU investigation are unveiled.

To its credit, the Breakthrough Discuss conference did a good job gender-balancing its panelists and speakers. By my count, 36 percent of the listed participants were women, whereas only 24 percent of U.S. STEM jobs were held by women in 2015. I was also encouraged to see representation from early career women scientists holding prominent positions on current and proposed NASA missions. But one cosmic-sneakered man marred all that.

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Solving systemic sexual harassment in STEM will take a team effort. Everyone from institutions to senior scientists to professional organizations needs to step up.

And as for us "ordinary" men? In addition to providing some of the resources I linked to throughout this article, Sondy started a Twitter thread asking for suggestions. Some general takeaways were: Men need to listen to, believe and visibly back up women. We must intervene early before situations escalate. We can band together to amplify our support. We can pressure leadership to take action. We can proactively work on building more inclusive environments.

It's going to be awkward, and we're not always going to get it right. But when we screw up, we can respectfully ask for feedback, listen, and apologize.

"Science" can wait. This is too important.