Future Tense

Nobel Laureates Say the Dumbest Things

James Watson poses with the original DNA model ahead of a May 2005 press conference at the Science Museum in London.

Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt made a sexist “joke” that was not a joke at an invitation-only event held at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea. The event: a lunch in honor of women in science. The joke: Hunt doesn’t like to work beside women—sorry, girls—because “three things happen when they are in the lab … You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Bonus points to Hunt for sharing his witticism with a roomful of journalists. Shortly afterward, he sorry-not-sorried on BBC’s Radio 4: “I’m really really sorry that I caused any offense, that’s awful. I just meant to be honest, actually.”

Still, Hunt is hardly the first eminent scientist to say something incredibly stupid—in fact, some make Hunt’s comments look positively tame. Here, in no particular order, is a short and not-at-all-definitive list of other Nobel laureates saying boneheaded things.

1. James Watson (Physiology or Medicine, 1962), on Africans, to the Sunday Times in 2007: “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” A few years later, as he planned to sell his Nobel Prize in a fit of pique, he insisted to the Financial Times in 2014 that he’s “not a racist in a conventional way.”

2. William Bradford Shockley Jr. (Physics, 1956), explaining to the New Scientist in 1973 why he “sincerely and thoughtfully” believed that the National Academy of Sciences should support research into racial eugenics: He had, he said, been led “inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the U.S. Negro’s intellectual and social deficits are hereditary and racially genetic in origin and thus not remediable to a major degree by any practical improvements in environment.”

3. Richard Feynman (Physics, 1965) in his 1985 book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, sharing an anecdote about learning to woo women: “All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.”

4. Kary Mullis (Chemistry, 1993), explaining to Spin in 1994 why he believes HIV isn’t the cause of AIDS: “You don’t discover the cause of something like AIDS by dealing with incredibly obscure things. You just look at what the hell is going on. Well, here’s a bunch of people that are practising a new set of behavioural norms. Apparently it didn’t work because a lot of them got sick. That’s the conclusion.” (Mullis was also a proponent of this “astrology” thing. As he wrote in his 1998 book Dancing Naked in the Mind Field: “How could an institution of higher learning grant someone a Ph.D. in psychology without requiring at least a few courses in astrology?”)

5. Philipp Lenard (Physics, 1905), writing in his 1936 book Deutsche Physik and throwing some racist shade at what he called “Jewish Physics”—also known as Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: “The Jew conspicuously lacks any understanding of truth beyond a merely superficial agreement with reality, which is independent of human thought. This is in contrast to the Aryan scientist’s drive, which is as obstinate as it is serious in its quest for truth. The Jew has no noticeable capacity to grasp reality in any form other than as it appears in human activity and in the weaknesses of his host nation.”

6. V.S. Naipaul (Literature, 2001), to the Guardian in 2011, explaining why women writers are simply inferior: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” (The Guardian created this little quiz in response. Test yourself!)

Because even geniuses can be idiots sometimes.