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Physics and bullying

Gordon Brown has recently been accused of bullying staff members. Credit: Downing Street

By Margaret Harris

Workplace bullying has become a hot topic in the UK lately, following allegations that Prime Minister Gordon Brown bullied members of his staff at No. 10 Downing Street. Leaving aside the (substantial) politicking behind these particular claims and counterclaims, the debate seems to hinge on a question that is as relevant to career physicists as it is to career politicians: what, exactly, constitutes bullying?

The UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS lists several examples of bullying and harassing behaviour. Some of them seem pretty obvious. Any manager — be it a Prime Minister or a PhD supervisor — who makes unwelcome sexual advances or spreads malicious rumours about an employee is clearly bang out of order, and ought to be severely reprimanded or sacked.

But other examples are less clear. “Overbearing supervision” is on the list, as is “ridiculing or demeaning” someone. Neither of them sound like much fun, but different people react differently to criticism, and it’s at least arguable that one person’s “overbearing supervision” is another’s “making sure the job gets done right”.

There are some reasons to believe that academia is particularly prone to bullying, as one commenter on a recent BBC story suggested. The apprenticeship system for PhD students and early-career researchers gives senior academics a lot of power and influence over their junior colleagues. It also makes it difficult for victims of bullying to walk away from a bad situation, because chances are they’ll have to either start over or leave academia entirely.

But I wonder whether there’s something more subtle going on with physics in particular. The fact is that quite a few of history’s great physicists — the people many of us regard as our scientific heroes — weren’t exactly great managers. I enjoy stories about Feynman’s skirt-chasing as much as anyone, but I’d have thought twice about being his PhD student. Bohr frequently drove Heisenberg to tears. And there are plenty of horror stories out there about lesser scientists; my favourite (unconfirmed) one is of a Nobel laureate who allegedly went around urinating in other people’s experiments so that they wouldn’t work.

Can we separate these physicists’ great achievements from their personal flaws? Certainly. But perhaps we should think twice about relating these anecdotes with such gusto. After all, what was Pauli’s famous “not even wrong” jibe if not “ridiculing or demeaning” to the hapless lecturer on the receiving end?

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  1. Ender

    You left out Issac Newton, the greatest bully among physicists. I would quote the story told in this blog ( ) about his treatment of Robert Hooke, which is just an example. In that entry Hamish Johnston wrote:
    “When this lowly chap informed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics that he had formulated the inverse square law of gravitation years before the publication of Principia, Newton is said to have flown into a rage. The two had already sparred over their optical theories, and when Newton took over as president of the Royal Society in 1703 (the year of Hooke’s death), he began erasing all traces of Hooke. Famously, he tossed the only contemporary portrait of Hooke onto a fire.”

  2. Bullying is the worst preventable short and long term trauma producing event that both children AND adults face today. Enough is enough. Bullying must stop THIS generation. It’s time for parents to wake up!

  3. John Duffield

    It’s a bit more complicated than that, Ender. “Already sparred” doesn’t quite get across that Newton and Hooke had history. See for a taster.
    Sadly, bullying is a fact of life, Sensei. We do what we can to prevent it, but people are people. It affects all spheres. I wouldn’t say physics is anything special, Margaret. In fact, it rather surprises me that people expect science to be immune to the vagaries of human nature.

  4. Ender

    I definitely agree with you John. Actually I put that example as something that is readily available to this blog’s readers. I usually put Newton as an example that a bright person isn’t necessarily a good person.
    Indeed, scientists are ordinary humans, but the problem with physics is that it attracts many bright, but also arrogant and haughty people, and they are prone to become bullies. I’m sure we all have our own anecdotes; some funny, and some not so funny.
    On the other hand, I guess bullying is far more frequent in other activities, such as sports (where we can also have our own anecdotes; usually not funny at all.)

  5. One of my favourite stories about Newton (I aplogise that I cannot recall where I read it) is that his apparently modest comment, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants” is actually another not-very-veiled attack on Hooke, who was apparently very short and stooping.

  6. I think some of the psychology of bullying is now being understood by our social science colleagues. I know that many natural scientists haven’t time of day for social scientists, but, for example, the writings of Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University describe in quite interesting detail the psychological processes involved. It might be interesting to know what he makes of his more famous cousin…
    A good popular account appears in his book “The Essential Difference”.

  7. Galileo A. Muñoz Mtz.

    There are many teachers that they work much with some students, they are romantically involved. Maybe fall in love by bullying, what not to say that’s bad. Perhaps bullying is a way of admiration that becomes love, not just a love of work but also to the person.

  8. Michael Clarke

    After visiting (in the 1930s?) an American professor in California Einstein said “I have never met a man who knew so much but understood so little”

  9. Gordon Brown and the Brits learn all that at those British boarding schools. Fortunately, most of us have not been forced into that kind of abuse.
    There have been a slew of recent suicides caused by bullying or by cyber-bullying. Schools are not protecting our children. is a great place to report a bully anonymously and be sure the school administrators will be put on “official notice” so they can’t deny knowledge later. It seems to be the usual trend, observing the last several deaths. Gee, the school had no idea! Right. is another helpful site for kids and parents. It seems the bullied get all the blame and no support, while the bullies remain smug and almost protected. Sad.


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