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The astronomy “Toy Story” row

Boys with toys? Flickr/Simon Rankin, CC BY-NC-ND

I was initially rather excited to see that one of my friends and collaborators, Professor Shri Kulkarni from Caltech, had his picture littering my Facebook feed recently.

Unfortunately for Shri, it was because in an interview with National Public Radio he had described many scientists as secretly being “boys with toys”. Worse, he had said “You’re not supposed to say that”, which indicated that although it might be controversial, he said it anyway – which is typical of Shri.

There are many ways to interpret Shri’s comment, one is that scientists are boys, but as it turns out that is not what Shri meant.

In a bygone era, such a comment might have left many women scientists annoyed, but not had much of a medium for transport.

But in today’s era of blogs and the Twitterverse it wasn’t long before the hash-tag #girlswithtoys was born, with inspirational images of women doing science with science “toys” of their own. Many were quite inspiring and demonstrated the pride with which these women take their occupation. A very positive response. Indeed it was so popular that it spawned a large number of images and tweets.

But then articles began to appear with statements in them such as:

And that’s when I got angry.

Luckily, Twitter, oasis of calling people on their shit, has decided to call Kulkarni on his shit.

Kulkarni may have intended to counter the false assumption that science can’t be fun, but in referring to these scientists as ‘boys’ he erased an already marginalized population of the field: Women.

What Kulkarni fails to realize is that many scientists are also ‘GIRLS with toys’

I don’t believe that any of these authors talked to Shri for clarification about what he meant - perhaps they felt they didn’t need to?

If his crime was to use the phrase “boys with toys”, and that is your threshold for sexism worthy of some of the abusive responses above, then ok – stop reading now.

My problem is that I have known Shri for many years, and I don’t believe that he’s even remotely sexist. But in 2015 can one defend someone who’s been labeled sexist without a social media storm?

Are people open to the possibility that actually Kulkarni might be very honourable in his dealings with women?

If you would like to know what Shri meant, read on.

Shri explained to me that he himself is actually more motivated by the design and construction of “cool gizmos” than the ultimate science. Scientists are not supposed to say that because we get funded by agencies for the science, not the instrument. His reference to boys with toys was idiomatic as in the sense that some astronomers dote excessively on their instruments, see wiktionary’s description of the phrase.

If Shri had said, “some astronomers are like kids with toys”, or “I’m like a kid with a new toy”, would we have all gone back to our day jobs?

The Shri I know is incredibly arrogant – but strangely lovable, in part because his arrogance is only surpassed by his scientific talent and his consistency in being completely intolerant to bad science.

Kulkarni the scientist

I first came across Shri’s work in my very first year of science in 1984. When a very young scientist Shri had discovered the first millisecond pulsar, an astonishing breakthrough in pulsar astrophysics.

Professor Shri Kulkarni. Caltech

Despite being some ~20km in diameter, PSR B1937+21 rotated 642 times a second and rewrote the history books. It spawned an entirely new field of astrophysics and was published in Nature and now has more than 500 citations.

Shri was one of the first astronomers studying pulsars to exploit tools other than radio telescopes to study them, and in a seminal paper in 1986, Shri demonstrated that there was something fundamentally wrong with the standard model of pulsars by looking at their companions with optical telescopes and finding that they were strangely old. This destroyed the current pulsar evolutionary model of the time.

In 1986 I first met Shri at a conference in Nanjing, China. He sat in the front row and energised the meeting, insisting on asking a question at the conclusion of every talk, often prefaced with statements like: “I have a radical theory…”

One night I went out to Nanjing’s only disco with Shri and watched him try to get the band - that couldn’t speak English - to play some rock and roll. When the best they could do was a slow Elvis number he went into the middle of a dance floor and screamed and danced as if they were playing something of a completely different tempo and era.

Over the years I’d see Shri at different science meetings. In all of them he’s been incredibly intolerant of bad science and calls it for what it is. He teases entire discipline groups, saying things like: “You people trying to measure dark energy are really wasting your time, the Nobel prize has already been awarded.”

Kulkarni as a friend

Once at a large international meeting I gave the last talk in the session and had decided to start with a humorous cartoon describing binary stellar evolution. Shortly after completing my rather long and amusing introduction, the chair gave me a one minute warning and it left me no time for my science as all the previous speakers had run over time! It wasn’t a great talk.

That night Shri said to me: “Because I am your friend I’m going to tell you that your talk was terrible.” It was his way of showing that he cared. Don’t waste your limited scientific opportunities - a valuable lesson.

The next night we found ourselves at the conference dinner. Shri noticed there was a distinct hierarchy in the table seatings.

Together we worked on an after-dinner speech that I found myself delivering. I thanked our hosts, but soon explained that the table numbers were non-random. To be seated at Table 1 you have to be either the president of a learned academy, a Nobel Laureate or the descendent of one. Table 2 consists of “those who aspire to be at Table 1”, an amusing, confronting but probably truthful line.

Shri left the pulsar world and transformed many other areas of science, making pivotal breakthroughs in understanding gamma-ray repeaters and the origin of gamma-ray bursts.

He was elected to become a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) and made the Director of the California Observatories. Shri has an incredible 79 papers in Science and Nature for his work. His h-index is 93 (he has 93 papers with more than 93 citations), higher than anyone else I know. I once had a Nobel laureate tell me that they weren’t ever going to apply for another grant with Shri because the referees used to comment how superior Shri was to him.

Whenever I go to the US I stop by Caltech to talk science with Shri and stay at his place. We usually spend a lot of the time arguing, but he keeps the invitation open.

Shri likes to taunt his fellow astronomers, on his university web page he has a statement that: “Given a sufficiently large telescope, a sufficiently idiotic astronomer can always make a discovery.”

Shri has no tolerance for mediocrity in science, and won’t take on students he considers only average, as he thinks that they are wasting everyone’s time, including their own.

Boys with Toys

It may be convenient for some people who’ve never met Shri to paint him as some incredibly sexist individual that is compounding the issues faced by women in science with off-hand comments like his “boys with toys” line.

But many of his former female students and postdocs, of whom he is very proud, have thrived in his group and gone onto prestigious positions, and other women recently posted on Facebook how welcome they’ve always felt in his group.

In Shri’s opinion, you get places with hard work and achievement regardless of other’s opinions or attitudes. Indeed a long time ago he told me that he is completely opposed to positive discrimination. This initially surprised me, as he came to the US as a dark-skinned foreigner, and I would have thought been subject to all sorts of discrimination, but I’ve come to learn that he is nothing if not consistent.

In my experience, the only thing that Shri cares about an astronomer is their scientific ability and achievements. He couldn’t care less about their sex, race or religion, or what people think about his tact. If you want to impress Shri, do something original, not jump on the latest bandwagon.

Shri himself might offer the example of his sister as someone who overcame sexism in the workplace. Sudha Murthy was a university gold medallist who was disqualified from applying for a job at TATA Engineering on the basis of her sex - “Ladies need not apply”.

Rather than be denied, she wrote a postcard to the head of the company who subsequently flew her down for an interview. After being grilled for hours they relented and offered her a job at which she excelled.

Some years later she took her life savings (of about US$150) and invested it in her husband’s company, Infosys. It is now worth US$42-billion. She became a famous author and one of India’s most generous philanthropists. Google her, her story is an inspiration.

The purpose of this article is not to argue that because Shri is a genius he should be immune to criticism, but rather to explain his intellect, scientific impact, and consistency.

Shri’s statements to NPR were more about his own child-like fascination with instrumentation than any deliberate attempt to marginalise women.

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