A friend sent me this Stanford Daily article about the strange tale of Elizabeth Okazaki, who
[f]or the last four years … has attended graduate physics seminars, used the offices reserved for doctoral and post-doctoral physics students and for all intents and purposes made the Varian Physics Lab her home. The only problem is that Okazaki appears to have no affiliation with Stanford and, according to physics professors and students, no real reason to be there.
The article quotes two people I know: Lenny Susskind (“as far as I can tell, she has a very limited knowledge of physics itself”) and Alessandro Tomasiello (“I feel really bad for her … I don’t want to have a conversation with her that will actually hurt her”). From both the article and the many impassioned comments, it’s clear that opinions in the physics department were mixed. Of course, by now Stanford has predictably reacted by banning Okazaki from campus.
Here’s the thing: while Okazaki is admittedly an extreme case, she reminds me of people I’ve known throughout my academic career. These are the groupies of science: those non-scientists who, for one reason or another, choose to build their whole social lives around science and scientists. When asked about their “research,” such people usually mention some vague interdisciplinary project that never seems to come to fruition.
After long deliberation, I’ve reached the following conclusion: generally speaking, SCIENCE NEEDS MORE GROUPIES, NOT LESS.
And no, not just for the obvious reason. At their best, groupies perform a vital role in the socially-impoverished scientific ecosystem, by serving as the conveyors of gossip, the organizers of parties, the dispensers of advice, and the matchmakers of lonely nerds with eligible humanists.
Furthermore, science needs a freewheeling culture to function, a point that seems lost on many of the Stanford Daily commenters. There we find enraged alumni wondering how anyone could possibly get away with this, and declaring that they certainly won’t be sending their kids to any school that tolerates such inanity. We find bigots comparing Okazaki to the Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui (the common thread being, apparently, that both of them are Asian). And we find people asking rhetorically whether any corporation or government agency would tolerate a freeloader hanging around its offices for years. (My answer: probably not, and that’s one reason why I’m happy not to work at such places!)
On the other hand, we also find commenters denouncing the spoiled bourgeoisie capitalists at Stanford, who would deny a poor homeless woman the right to sleep in their physics building. Unless the critics are Mother Teresas themselves, that doesn’t seem fair to me either.
I have no desire to pass judgment on someone I’ve never met; any decision on Okazaki ought to rest with the people who actually work in Varian and know the specifics of her case. But I’d like to offer a general suggestion to any department that finds itself in a similar situation in the future: unless the groupie is insane or incompetent, find her some low-paying job as a lab assistant or “social programming director” or something like that. When we discover a stowaway on the great Ship of Science, why throw her overboard when we could make her swab the decks?
Update (6/6): Peter Woit now has his own post on this affair, with several entertaining comments. I’m skeptical of the idea that Okazaki had no real interest in science or scientists and only wanted free digs. Even in the insane housing market of Palo Alto, surely there must be ways to get a roof over your head that don’t require sitting in on theoretical physics seminars?
I also found the following comment priceless:
I think Scott Aaronson’s opinion is quite shallow … Scott wants groupies, and he wants to hire them to “swab the decks”. Only someone who thinks he is so special he should have serfs to serve him would think that way. College Professors already have a bunch of poorly paid workers(graduate students) who write papers for them. Do these aristocrats need an additional class of poorly paid servants
It always amuses me when those looking for an “elite” to rail against pick people who strive for a decade against staggering odds to have ideas that no one in the history of the world ever had before, in order that they might possibly qualify for a stressful, ~90-hour-a-week job offering the same money, power, and prestige that would accrue automatically to a mid-level insurance salesman.