Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Part 6: The Student's Tale

Previously: Part 5. The Music Pirate.

August 24, 2014. Los Angeles International Airport.

Today I flew to California. Back over the Andes. Now I'm in the land of good burgers and free drink refills.

After clearing security in LA, the first thing I did was log in to the free airport wifi. And I had this waiting for me. It's my last guest post, and I think it's the best yet. It's from a woman who was a fellow PhD student with Prick; they even worked together on their thesis projects. What a scoop! Listen to her story...


I have been following the reports of Professor Prick. Everyone admits that he was a bastard, but they also say that he was a genius and he worked hard. The media say he's a brilliant scientist who has been the victim of one stupid mistake.

That is a lie.

He and I were PhD students together, and I want to make this completely clear: he is an idiot.

He had such a superficial understanding of physics that I doubt he could pass a freshman introductory course. I can tell you for a fact that he was given only the narrowest of passes on every one of his grad school classes, and he achieved those only because the professors didn't want to see him back the next year. They openly told that to him, and to anyone else willing to listen. He failed the PhD qualifying exam twice, and should have been kicked out of grad school for it. Somehow he brokered a deal with the head of department. That man has a lot to answer for -- as they all do.

We shared a PhD supervisor. I believe that our supervisor was a truly good scientist, of the kind that has not yet appeared in your story. He possessed a deep understanding of his subject, on which he was passionate, and he was rigorous in ensuring that he produced only high quality results. But like most of the men in physics, he was severely biassed by his ingrained sexism.

When I arrived at graduate school he actually told me, "I have never taken a girl as a student before. But your past work is excellent, so just this once I'll try it. Let's consider it an experiment."

So I was his experiment. What an appalling attitude, but I bit my tongue. I didn't want him to conclude that I was "emotional" or "irrational". I made the mistake of believing that I could change his view through hard work. I would prove to him that I was capable.

That should have been easy, because Prick and I were given the same joint project. We had to write a computer code to solve a problem that would test our supervisor's latest (very clever) idea, and we each had separate parts to solve. I made good progress. Prick produced nothing.

I have no idea what Prick did. I often saw him hunched over his computer, peering at the screen with a look of pained confusion on his face. There was a lot of peering, but not a lot of typing.

I only once saw a piece of Prick's code. I'm not sure what it was supposed to calculate. I focussed only on the very last line, which printed the results.

"I don't understand," I said. "This prints the number 10. No matter what the rest of the code does, at the end it just prints the number 10. Why?"

"I made some simplifying assumptions."

"But the result is supposed to be an angle. The angle can be anything between zero and two times pi, which is about six. It can never be 10."

"There must be a factor missing."

"Fine. But the code still produces just one number, no matter what the results of all the other calculations."

"Well, my physical intuition tells me…"

He often lectured me on his physical intuition. He never showed me any of his code ever again.

It wasn't long before I was writing the whole code, and all Prick had to do was run it and test it.

He couldn't even do that. Every week he turned up to our group meetings and presented gibberish. It took me more time to explain to him how to operate the code than it took me to write it.

He once told me, "I'm not really interested in this monkey business of coding. My real strength is in interpreting the physics of the results." At the time I was proud of myself that I didn't laugh. In retrospect I should had given him a black eye.

I was the one doing the science, and he was the monkey, and it was obvious to everyone except him.

Or so I thought.

One day our supervisor announced, "I've been invited to present at a conference next month, but I can't go. Prick: can you go in my place? These are your fantastic results, and you should present them."

I was stunned. All I could manage to say was, "Do you really think the results are ready to show?"

"There are still a few issues," he said. "But this conference will be a good motivation for the two of you to clear them up."

I had completely failed to realise what was going on. Prick didn't understand a single thing. I was sure of that. But he had learned the jargon. He had learned to distinguish the phrases that made me roll my eyes from those that got a nod of approval from our supervisor. He was able to mimic a full understanding of the work that I was doing. No, worse: he was confident enough to project a greater understanding than I could.

Then I made a stupid mistake. I blew up. I delivered a screaming account of Prick's incompetence to our supervisor. It kills me to admit it: I cried.

And for my trouble I got what I had strived for two years to avoid. That pitying look that said, "Yes, I expected this to happen."

My supervisor assumed a comforting tone. "You've been working very hard. You need a break. Take a couple of weeks off, and then we can talk again."

I tried to protest. He held up his hand, like he'd seen in many good movies of strong men dealing with weak women. "No. I insist."

I took the two weeks off, and tried to convince myself that he was right and I was unreasonable. When I got back there were two papers written. My name was at the end of one of them, and on the main paper, the one that presented the key results, Prick was the only author.

Our supervisor explained, "It's fair that we all go on the methods paper, since I suggested the idea and you did some work on the code. But for the results, this was a major solo effort by Prick, and I would like him to get full credit for it."

After that I stopped working seriously on the problem. I had plenty of material to write up a thesis, so that's what I did over the next six months, and then I was done. That was the end of science for me -- I had had enough. I was ashamed to give in, and I still feel ashamed and angry every day. But now that I know the rest of Prick's career, I've begun to deal with it. That scam-artist and bully and bullshitter might have beaten me -- but he beat everyone.

Against the regular men alone I might have won. Against Prick no-one wins.

Do you really think this scandal will be the end of him? I suffered the pain of one fruitless dream. I won't allow myself another.

Next: Part 7. The Magical Kingdom of Science


  1. This is gripping stuff, even to the layman! I am really starting to hope that somehow Prick gets his comeuppance.

    1. As David Brent would say, "Pipe dreams are good."

  2. Much more interesting that whatever is showing on BBC!
    Go on....

    1. Thanks! The grumpy commenter on this (otherwise very nice) Physics World article doesn't seem to agree... http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/indepth/2014/nov/27/web-life-the-fictional-aether

    2. Shame on you, you made me register to physicsworld just to read it! The piece is great, better than my last referee report anyway.
      Forget zortysky, or whatever his/her/its name was, you cannot please all consonants at the same time.


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