I’m among the many fans of the entertaining physics lectures that made Walter Lewin a star of stage (MIT OpenCourseWare) and screen (YouTube). And I was among those saddened, last month, to learn that charges of harassment had ended his career on the OpenCourseWare stage.
When it severed its ties to Lewin, MIT made the controversial decision to remove his lectures from ocw.mit.edu. Searching for perspective on that decision, I landed on Scott Aronson’s blog where I found much useful discussion. One comment in particular, from Temi Remmen, had the ring of truth:
I agree Walter Lewin’s lectures should be made available through a different source so everyone around the world may enjoy them. Having known him for most of my life, I am not in the least surprised that this happened to him. None of us enjoy his downfall. However, he managed to alienate many of his peers, colleagues and people in his personal life to an extreme. It is my gut feeling, that prominent people at MIT had enough of his antics, in spite of his success as a teacher and brilliance as a scientist. In the scientific community, he is widely known for being very demeaning and insulting to those he does not feel are as intelligent as he is — and for having had numerous problems with women in the past. His online sexual harassment does not appear to warrant this kind of punishment, not even by MIT. This was a long time coming and they got rid of him this way. Emails destroy careers. Sorry to say. I feel sorry for Walter too for lacking the insight to treat others better and that he did this to himself.
That was on December 10th, the day after the news broke. I read the comment thread a few days later, absorbed the discussion, and moved on.
So I was surprised the other night by Conor Friedersdorf’s The Blog Comment That Achieved an Internet Miracle, inspired by that very same comment thread. When I’d last checked in, the Aronson thread ended at about comment #75. The comment to which Friedersdorf refers was #171, posted on December 14.
It would be insane to add many more words to the outpouring that followed the now-infamous Comment #171, both on Aronson’s blog and elsewhere. So instead I’ll just add a couple of pictures.
Contributors by number of comments:
Contributors by number of bytes:
What these charts show is that two people dominate the thread which, by the other night, had grown to over 600 comments. There’s Scott Aronson, the author of the blog, who in the two weeks leading up to Christmas wrote 107 comments adding up to about 30,000 words (assuming an average word length of 5 characters). And there’s Amy, who over those same two weeks wrote 82 comments adding up to about 36,000 words.
I can’t begin to summarize the discussion, so I’ll just agree with Conor Friedersdorf’s assessment:
Aaronson and his interlocutors transformed an obscure, not-particularly-edifying debate into a broad, widely read conversation that encompassed more earnest, productive, revelatory perspectives than I’d have thought possible. The conversation has already captivated a corner of the Internet, but deserves wider attention, both as a model of public discourse and a window into the human experience.
There were many interlocutors, but one in particular stood head and shoulders above the crowd: Amy. How often is she mentioned in three widely-cited blog posts about the Comment 171 affair? Let’s look.
0: http://slatestarcodex.com/2015/01/01/untitled/ (Scott Alexander)
Another Internet miracle!