Sunday, February 26, 2017

Fear and Trembling Under the Stars

"It was in the early morning, Abraham arose and had his donkeys saddled. He departed from his tent, and Isaac with him; but Sarah looked out of the window after them until they were out of sight." (Søren Kierkegaard)

Kierkegaard begins his famous meditation on faith, Fear and Trembling, with four versions of the story of Abraham and Isaac. In rough outline, the basic events in all four versions are the same. Isaac gets up early and saddles the donkeys; he and Isaac walk three days to the mountain; he binds Isaac and makes a fire; he releases him and they walk home. But Kierkegaard uses the four stories to consider different possibilities. In particular, he imagines the different ways that Isaac might have interpreted his father's strange behavior and the different consequences this might have had for Isaac's own faith.

I want to do the same thing with the story of how Michelle Thaller met and married Andrew Booth. What follows are imagined variations on her story. You can read the original in her 2002 piece for the Christian Science Monitor. I hope she doesn't mind me using her story in this way, nor that I reuse her language in my pastiche. In the language of copyright lawyers, I'm confident it is fair use. But let me unambiguously assert Thaller's moral rights to her own story. My variations are entirely my own responsibility. I have not consulted her about this post. [Note: the first version is essentially a summary of Thaller's story and is the true story. It's also the one that uses most of her language. But I intentionally use her imagery and phrases throughout this experiment.]

In any case, it is interesting to read Thaller's account in the light of our current obsession with sexual harassment. I don't believe that the same story would be published in today's climate. If it did, I don't think the ideologues of the CSWA would approve of it. Back in 2002 it was just a heartwarming story about love "under the stars"; but that story, I fear, simply can't be told within the current narrative. Indeed, I tremble. We all should.


It was early in the morning. After an exhausting 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Michelle stepped off the plane and looked around for Andrew, a professor that a colleague at her department had arranged to meet her at the airport. She had never met him before. When she saw him, however, she was immediately intrigued. He was uncharacteristically snappily dressed for an astronomer. Wearing a teal-colored silk shirt with a brocade waistcoat, he evoked her old crush on Tom Baker as the Doctor. She noticed his smile and his warm brown eyes. Despite being exhausted and jet-lagged, by lunchtime she was trying to work phrases into the conversation like "... and your wife? ... your girlfriend?" "Oh, you're not seeing anyone right now? How interesting."

She was there for a few days. In between all-nighters at the observatory, they managed to cram in their first date: dinner and the Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House. They talked almost until dawn, and a few hours later they were standing back in the Sydney airport, saying a rather nervous goodbye. Andrew tried to kiss her, but missed and hit her nose. She reciprocated and hit the mark. Somewhere over the Pacific, she looked down at the sun-speckled waves and thought, "I love you, Andrew." Andrew immediately wrote to her colleague back home, demanding they send that grad student back to Australia as soon as possible. Four years later, they were married.


It was early in the morning. At the request of colleague in America, Andrew had reluctantly agreed to play host to graduate student and was waiting for her at the airport. As she came through customs, obviously exhausted after the long flight, he was immediately taken with her beauty. The world stopped. He gave her his best smile and picked up her bags. Over lunch, he was encouraged by her not-too-subtle interest in whether he was married or otherwise involved. Fortunately, he could honestly say he was not. But, given how he already felt, would he have lied if he had been? He did not know.

As planned, she stayed in his guest room and spent the nights at the observatory watching the stars. He made sure to be there too, and when the opportunity presented itself he invited her to see the Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House. On her last night, they talked almost until dawn and then he took her to the Sydney airport. They were both nervous and Andrew bungled their first kiss, managing only a peck on the nose. Fortunately, her follow-up was more accurate.

Returning to his office, now certain he was in love, Andrew immediately wrote to his colleague at her university, arranging for some way to bring her back as soon as they could. A long-distance romance ensued. They exhanged intimate emails and made sure to meet up at conferences whenever possible. She came to visit him and he came to visit her.

He was worried when she stopped answering his mails. One day, she announced the she was getting married to a young man in the English department. Once again, the world stopped. He begged her to reconsider, but she did not respond. At the next AAS conference, he left her several messages at her hotel. She did not answer. He attended her session and she avoided his eyes, slipping out of the room in a crowd before he could talk to her. At a reception he finally cornered her. She spoke to him sternly, telling him he had to understand it was over. If he did not leave her alone she would file a formal complaint. "Yes," she admited, "it was once love." But now it was bordering on harassment. "Good bye, Andrew."


It was early in the morning. After an exhausting 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to Sydney, Michelle stepped off the plane and looked around for Andrew. She had never met him before, but when she saw him the world stopped. He was snappily dressed in a teal-colored silk shirt and a brocade waistcoat. His brown eyes shone through a warm smile that used his whole face to express itself. Over lunch she asked him, perhaps a bit too inquisitively about whether he was married or seeing someone. She tried to conceal her joy when he said he was not.

She was there for a few days, staying in his guestroom as had been arranged. She spent her nights at the observatory, of course, and so did he. One night, he suggested they go to dinner and the opera. She was thrilled to accept. On their last night together, they talked almost until dawn and, a few hours later, back in the Sydney airport, he leaned in to kiss her goodbye. He missed and ended up hitting her nose, but she immediately corrected the error and kissed him on the mouth. As she looked down at the sun-speckled waves of the Pacific she knew she was in love.

Back in California, however, she was distraught when her colleague asked her whether she had met Andrew's lovely wife. She confronted him about it a few months later at a conference. He was embarrassed and mumbled something about a misunderstanding. He pretended he had not tried to kiss her and had hoped that her kiss was just "an American thing"—just a bit of fun. Now his faced changed and he addressed her seriously. He suggested that she not speak to anyone about this, and that she consider how a scandal might affect her career. Four years later, she left astronomy for a job in industry.


It was early in the morning. Andrew was waiting outside customs at the Sydney airport. He hated this sort of obligation but, as usual, he had buckled and promised a colleague that he would play host to a graduate student from America. He had even agreed to let her stay in his guest room. Now, as she came through customs, he noticed something odd about the way she stopped and looked at him. He felt strangely cast in the role of the Doctor meeting his new Companion.

Ever British, however, he gave her his best smile and picked up her bags. Over lunch, he was a bit concerned by her interest in his love life. He answered, honestly, that he was not seeing anyone—he was all work, really—and again registered her reaction with some concern. Was something happening between them? If so, what was he supposed to do?

Since she was staying in his home and using his telescope at the observatory they necessarily spent a lot of time together during her stay. One night, she hinted strongly, he thought, that she would like to see the Barber of Seville at the Sydney Opera House. He had a connection that could get them some tickets that evening but they would have to go straight from the observatory, getting some dinner on the way. It was a lovely evening. Perhaps a bit too lovely, he vaguely thought. But he put it out of his mind.

On her last night, she kept him up all night talking. He was too polite to send her off to bed; she was so young and enthusiastic. It was not unpleasant company. After breakfast, he drove her to the airport. As they parted, she seemed nervous and Andrew thought perhaps a hug was in order. She moved her head in the wrong direction and her nose touched his lips. She looked a bit confused, but smiled coyly and kissed him on the lips. Then she said a hurried goodbye and was gone. Was that the sound of the Tardis wheezing behind him?

Back in the office he wrote a carefully worded email, praising Michelle's scientific abilities and saying she'd be welcome back anytime. Rereading this email a year later as part of the sexual harassment complaint she had filed against him, he realized he had not been careful enough. Indeed, the whole thing had been wrong from the beginning he could now see. He should have been better at establishing a boundary. Apparently, she thought that he had been coming on to her the whole time. She had only been "playing along", trying to "survive".

As he wrote his letter of resignation, he tried to remember Auden's quip about the Americans and the British being two people divided by a common language. He looked up. They're not actually shooting stars, the first astronomy lesson he could remember had taught him; they are falling rocks. They are burning up.

* * *

These are strange times. After reading Thaller's story and my imaginary variations, consider Kevin Marvel's unambiguous statement to the astronomy community:

[D]o not treat any AAS meeting or other event as a venue for finding a romantic partner. Yes, there are people at our events, and yes, people do make romantic connections, and yes, there may even be opportunities to make such connections at our events, but please, everyone, just shelve these inclinations for our conferences. Too much damage is being done. Just one negative interaction in the poster hall, at a session, in the bar during the meeting, or at a restaurant or offsite event may be all it takes to dissuade a bright young scientist from participating in our field. This is unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

He restated this more recently to me by email:

The AAS believes it is inappropriate for a professional science conference to be considered a dating or pickup zone. We believe that a professional scientific conference should be just that, a scientific conference. Our actions in establishing and advertising our anti-harassment policy and processing the few claims we have received fully and confidentially are steps to establish an open culture focused on science. We believe we are succeeding and we will continue to take steps to ensure that culture is maintained.

Under this rule, would the romance of Michelle and Andrew have been possible? I really don't think so. Then again, perhaps romance has always been against the rules. Perhaps we love, when we do, in spite of everything. Perhaps it will always take the faith of Abraham to take the leap, to form a personal relationship in a corporate culture. Good luck, astronomers!


Anonymous said...

All proper scientists agree that it is a proper and enlightened thing to accommodate dual-career couples. The CSWA is certainly interested in the topic.

However, scientist couples don't spring forth fully-formed; they have to meet first. Somebody has to make a move. Often this meeting and moving happens alongside some sort of professional interaction or event. As long as both parties are on the same page it is fine. But if there is a difference in understanding then it is clearly a terrible thing worthy of harsh sanction.

That is a serious dilemma for groups like the CSWA.

Thomas said...

I have to admit that I am not particularly "enlightened" in regard to the two-body problem. I for one would not feel comfortable asking either that a university employ my wife as a condition of employing me, or to employ me as a condition of employing my wife. It strikes me as a consideration that is completely irrelevant to the qualifications needed for a given position, and for the fit between the applicant and the department that must hire them. Also, I would not want to be in a position that is guaranteed by my wife's employment at the same university, and everyone knowing (or suspecting) that I'm only around as long my wife remains in her position at the same university. Finally, the co-hire will necessarily have a much harder time earning the respect of their colleagues, who in some cases know an applicant personally that the same department did not hire in order to make room for the co-hire. That person may have been considered by most to be the perfect fit, but which the budget did not allow because of the need to accomodate this "political" issue.

In my view, the two-body problem is a problem that couples must solve themselves. It's unfortunate that it has been construed by feminists as part of the "systemic" discrimination against women. The problem these women faced (and are, I think, facing less and less as time goes on) was not that universities discriminated against them. It was that they happened to fall in love with someone more accomplished than them. The solution is to date and marry people outside of their profession. But I certainly don't think that this justifies forbidding romance in astronomy. It's just that if you do fall in love "under the stars" you are taking on a problem, just as having children is a problem. It's yours to solve, as a couple.

Anonymous said...

I have decidedly mixed views on the two-body problem, but for the topic at hand I am left to wonder how enlightened activists think that two-body situations develop. People meet at work or school or conferences and develop an interest. Somebody makes a move. If the move is well-received then every activist agrees that universities and observatories have a moral obligation to hire both people. If the move is not well-received then every activist agrees that universities and observatories have a moral obligation to exile the man who made it.

This is madness.

Thomas said...

That is a very precise way of putting it. Thanks. I hope you don't mind me quoting you in a future post.

Anonymous said...

We hired a spouse without interviewing him/her, just making the commitment because we wanted the other person. The spouse has only a short term contract at least, but performance is mediocre and already in department politics people are expressing concern about how unfair it is that this person's contract might not be renewed.

People act like spousal hiring is a moral obligation and then wind up defending mediocre performance to fulfill moral obligations.

Jonathan said...

Yet if your spouse really is excellent she will not be hired. The problem too is distance between universities in the US, so that there are few easy commutes if you end up not getting a spousal thing.

Anonymous said...

I think there's no question that in the current year, this story could have panned out very differently. A graduate student and a professor having a romance? He was clearly in a position of power over her, not only as her mentor for the time at the telescope, but also having a friendship with her advisor. Surely a negative report from him would damage her reputation at home. Couple that with the two of them spending time in the cramped confines of the observatory, along with her staying at his house (!), being thousands of miles from home and not knowing anyone else, and it quickly becomes your boilerplate CSWA-style sexual harassment story. Except it's not, and they both lived happily ever after.