When Donna Strickland was announced this week as physics’ first female Nobel laureate in 55 years, it appeared progress was afoot in the field. But a bizarre video that has resurfaced on YouTube featuring another of this year’s physics laureates, Gérard Mourou, suggests enlightenment may be yet to reach all corners of the laser physics community.
The clip, titled “Have you seen ELI”, was made in 2013, apparently with the aim of promoting Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI), a €850m EU project led by Mourou. The soundtrack, an upbeat reggae song, lists the exciting goals of the laser facility: “reversing nuclear waste, understanding the universe and wait guys, even heal cancer”.
The accompanying footage is less squarely focused on the project’s scientific ambitions, however. Mourou and a colleague, Jean-Paul Chambaret, are seen dancing in the laser lab, apparently surrounded by a troupe of female students. Two of the women fling off their semi-transparent lab coats to reveal white underwear underneath, in an unexpected striptease. The men, wearing reflective laser googles, strike macho poses.
The two professors are also seen at the front of a lecture theatre teaching a class of students, one of whom, a young woman, lowers her eyelids at Mourou to reveal the words “I love ELI”. Everyone gets up and dances, some looking slightly awkward. Mourou then reappears in a flashy BMW convertible, running one hand through his silver hair as he arrives at the laser facility.
It is not clear who funded the production. The CNRS, the French national laboratory and funding agency, denied any involvement. “It was made at the sole personal initiative of the researcher and his team and our institution never relayed this video,” a spokesman said. “Moreover, many people at the CNRS believe it is inappropriate to promote science.”
The video is said to have been widely circulated in the laser physics community.
Christian Rödel, of the Helmholtz Institute in Jena, Germany, received it on a memory stick being passed around his lab. “My first reaction was, what an idiot,” he said. “It’s looking very bad for our field.” He has since met Mourou at conferences and had the impression that he is a “nice, gentle man”.
Rödel said it had been rumoured, behind closed doors, that the video could cost Mourou the Nobel prize – for which the French scientist had been widely tipped for some years. “He probably regrets it the most,” he added. “Especially now that he’s a Nobel prize winner.”
Jess Wade, a physicist at Imperial College London, said the four-minute clip managed to capture a lot of what is wrong with research, including hero-worship of professors, bizarre power relationships and sexism. “I’ve not been a scientist for a long time, but so far I haven’t met any professors who spend their days walking around research centres surrounded by half-naked dancing girls in lab coats,” she said.
Chambaret told Le Monde that the objective was to “present the research team in a humorous way”. Mourou and Chambaret did not respond to requests for comment.