Professor Sir Tim Hunt had won every honor in his field, from Fellowship of the Royal Society to the Nobel Prize. But last month, the pioneering biochemist was dismissed from his post at University College, London (UCL). Why? Because, speaking at a lunch to celebrate female scientists in Seoul, he had introduced his remarks with a clumsy joke about finding it hard to work with women in the laboratory because he fell in love with them and they cried.
One of the women present, a lecturer called Connie St Louis, complained on Twitter about his "sexism", triggering the usual lynch mob. By the time the professor had returned to London, his career lay about him in broken shards.
The scary thing here is not the Twitter reaction — we are familiar enough with the ugly psychology of mobs. What is truly depressing is the behavior of those directly involved. For it soon emerged that Mrs. St Louis had given only a partial account of events. You would not have gathered from her version that the professor was being ironic, making a little joke before the "now seriously" that led to his main point about female scientists playing an important role in Korea. Plenty of the women present were journalists but, as is the way when a lynch mob forms, they were reluctant to step into its path.
UCL behaved abominably, first ordering the professor to resign quietly to avoid being sacked, and then allowing its ultimatum to become known. It has since emerged that Sir Tim's accuser had made some seriously false claims about her own qualifications, but no one has suggested that she lose her post. As another Nobel prize-winner, Sir Andre Geim, remarked: "No Vice Chancellor would take on an ethnic-minority militant feminist. Those are not humble Nobel laureates who can be forced to resign quietly."