Recent Nobel Prize Winner Is 'Profoundly Sorry' for 'Degrading' Video of Women

2018 Nobel Prize winner Gerard Mourou made a music video where female dancers tear off their lab coats.

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Oct 4 2018, 9:07pm

Image: YouTube/"Have You Seen ELI"

UPDATE: Friday, October 5, 2018

Gerard Mourou apologized in a statement provided to Motherboard by École Polytechnique on Friday, saying:

“I am sincerely and profoundly sorry for the image conveyed by this video. At the time that this video was made, the objective was to popularize the research being done within the framework of the ELI project and to break down the austerity that the field of science can sometimes transmit. It is important that the scientific community recognize the role as well as the importance of each and every researcher, regardless of gender. I am honored that the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Donna Strickland, a woman for whom I have a tremendous amount of both respect and admiration. This Prize rewards our joint work, which, stands today as the vital technology for all high-power laser installations in the world. It has resulted in the development of a wide variety of essential applications, notably in the medical field.”

École Polytechnique denied commissioning, financing, producing, or directing the video: "This video conveys a degrading image of women, an image that the institution does not condone," it said, but does not believe that Mourou's Nobel Prize in Physics should be amended.

The original story follows below:

An old video featuring 2018 Nobel Prize recipient Gerard Mourou performing a choreographed dance with women tearing off their lab coats has resurfaced this week. Many of Mourou’s peers felt it inappropriately portrayed women working in physics.

The video, created in 2010, was circulated by students and professors at the renowned French research institute École Polytechnique, where Mourou currently teaches, and at other research centers in Europe. It was meant to promote the Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), a European collaboration that aims to build the most intense beamline system in the world, but was seen as being in poor taste by Mourou’s industry colleagues.

One dancing scene at the 2:25 mark shows women tearing off their lab coats and tossing them aside behind Mourou, Jean Paul Chambaret (Mourou’s now-retired colleague), and a third man Motherboard has not identified yet.

“There are many words that can describe the opinion of our community at that time: ridiculous, grotesque, and above all, totally inappropriate,” said a physicist who saw the video soon after it was created. Motherboard granted some sources in this story anonymity because they feared that publicly criticizing a recent Nobel Prize winner could jeopardize their careers.

“I have to say that people also laughed a lot, because at first sight this is so ridiculous—although the image of women carried out in this video is indeed not fun. We also had the feeling that Mourou was making our scientific community ridiculous,” they added.

For several years, the video was quietly passed around a small physics community. Until Tuesday, when Mourou, 74, was named one of three recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with the US’s Arthur Ashkin and Canada’s Donna Strickland. Mourou and Strickland, the third woman in history to have won the award, were recognized for their collaborative work creating groundbreaking tools from beams of light.

On Friday, a spokesperson for the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physics, told Motherboard that while it does not endorse the attitudes displayed in the video, "Professor Gérard Mourou has been awarded the Nobel Prize because of his groundbreaking contributions to the field of laser physics and would have received it even if the video in question had come to light at an earlier stage."

"The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awards the Nobel Prize to those who have made the most important discoveries or inventions in the fields of physics and chemistry. No other aspects are considered," the spokesperson added.

Göran K. Hansson, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, told AFP on Thursday that "It is not a prize for videos of films, it's a prize for science."

The video was anonymously uploaded to YouTube in 2013, but began circulating much more widely after reporter Leonid Schneider discussed it on his website, For Better Science, the day that Mourou won his Nobel. According to Le Monde, before this week, “Have You Seen ELI” had only garnered a few hundred views. It now has more than 67,000.

Motherboard has not yet been able to independently verify the identities of any of the women in the video, but Le Monde reported that they were a mix of the researchers’ students, friends and relatives, while Schneider reported that some were students and two were professional dancers.

Top: "Have You Seen ELI"; Bottom: "Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Other scenes show Mourou at a chalkboard while students sing and dance in their seats to reggae music. A female student closes her eyes to reveal “I [Heart] ELI” drawn on them, a nod to the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. One scene depicts Mourou in a BMW convertible.

Another scene, set in a library or conference room, features Mourou being orbited by a group of mostly female students and attendants.

Mourou has yet to publicly acknowledge the video and did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.

The video is regarded as a low point for Mourou, according to several people in the physics community.

“It was a big fuss in the community. People at conferences said, ‘What has he done? This is too much,’” said Christian Rödel, a postdoctoral researcher at the Helmholtz Institute Jena in Germany. “Nobody actually found this funny.”

In 2011, Rödel received a copy of the video on a USB drive from a PhD student who worked for a German research center, suggesting that it had been circulated outside of École Polytechnique. At the time, Rödel was completing his PhD thesis in high-intensity laser physics, but had never worked with Mourou. He estimates that 50 percent of that particular field—a few hundred members comprised of students, professors, and researchers—eventually saw the video before it was uploaded to YouTube.

Álvaro Peralta, who holds a PhD in high-intensity laser physics and has collaborated with ELI, also received the video on a USB drive. He said it was “well known” in the community for several years.

“We thought it was embarrassing,” Peralta said, adding that he is “pretty sure there were some complaints” about Mourou and the video.

On Twitter and YouTube, Mourou’s defenders have said the video is comedic. Even those who disapprove of the video told Motherboard they’ve otherwise never seen him engage in sexist behavior.

“I’ve never heard anything bad about how he treated women,” Rödel said.

The video credits the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) as producer and was filmed by Paris-based Lucioles Productions, according to Le Monde. In a statement provided to Le Monde, CNRS denied being involved with the video’s development and said it was only made aware of its existence after the fact.

"I don’t know who funded the video, but I can confirm that it was not paid for by ELI Delivery Consortium or any of the ELI facilities," Allen Weeks, director general of the ELI Delivery Consortium, which was founded in 2013, told Motherboard.

"I don’t know the origin of this video, I saw it the first time yesterday, probably like you," Weeks added. "As you mention in your story, my understanding is that it was made in 2010 to raise awareness for a funding bid promoting ELI. That connection is there and can’t be changed now."

Motherboard was unable to determine who commissioned and paid for the video.

Three people told Motherboard that Mourou’s peers discouraged others from discussing the video in order to protect his reputation, but did not specify who. One described it as “blacklisted.”

“I think everybody complained, and the general reaction was that the video was insane. Nobody really appreciated the role of women [in it],” Dimitri Batani, a physics professor at Bordeaux University in France, said.

Several people said that Mourou appeared in other videos that have not yet become public.

“The ELI project suppressed the distribution of the video for obvious reasons,” one person told Motherboard anonymously out of fear of professional retribution. “Mourou came to give a lecture in Prague two or three years ago, where he presented [a different video], which had a similar flavor.”

The controversy comes at a time when the field of physics is reckoning with systemic issues of sexism and harassment. On Monday, physicist Alessandro Strumia of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) was suspended for arguing at a conference that “physics was built by men,” and that women are inferior to their male counterparts.

A 2018 Pew Research Center report found that half of women with jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields had experienced gender discrimination at work.

“In subjects like physics, there are far fewer women, which can allow bad behavior to go unchecked. Imagine this happening the other way around. It just wouldn’t,” said Jess Wade, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physics and Center for Plastic Electronics at Imperial College London.

“I doubt anyone wanted to do it, but you often do things you don't want to when you're in such a screwed-up power relationship,” Wade added.

Becky Ferreira and Samantha Cole contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to include comments from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the ELI Delivery Consortium, and École Polytechnique.

Please contact the author with information about the video or others produced by Gerard Mourou at sarah.emerson@vice.com.