CAMBRIDGE, MA—Paleontologist and author Stephen Jay Gould spoke out against the increasingly aggressive tactics of the paparazzi Tuesday, railing against "the reckless throngs of photographers that relentlessly hound America's top scientists."
"The time has come to place limits on these photographers," said Gould, speaking from Harvard University, where he is a professor of geology and zoology. "They are disrupting my life, as well as those of my colleagues, my family, and my friends."
According to Gould, photographers stand poised around the clock at the entrance of virtually any facility where research is being conducted, including such science hotspots as the Mayo Clinic, labs at MIT and Princeton, and the Center For Astrophysical Research in Antarctica. The situation has gotten so bad, Gould said, that scientists are often forced to slip in through alternate entrances, and increased security is required at any conference they attend.
"It doesn't matter if you're in the lab developing semiconductor heterostructures for high-speed opto-electronics or just going out for coffee, someone is always ready to shove a camera in your face," said Gould, who rose to science stardom in 1972 when his theory of punctuated equilibria made him a household name. "As for field studies, I may as well forget them, unless I'm prepared to bring a full team of bodyguards along with me to the dig site."
Brian Greene, whose The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, And The Quest For The Ultimate Theory spent 32 weeks atop the New York Times bestseller list last year, is also fed up with the media.
"Yes, I want people to read my work, but my personal life is my own business," Greene said. "Just because I'm a scientist doesn't mean I have to completely surrender my privacy. The public doesn't have the right to know everything I do every second of the day." Greene recently sued the German magazine Stern for publishing nude sunbathing photos of him and his girlfriend, Stanford University physicist Dr. Aileen Wang.
Members of the paparazzi say they are merely responding to public demand, providing a service to the millions of Americans who closely follow the careers of the world's top physicists, mathematicians, and botanists.
"In this country, people want to know about scientific discoveries the minute they happen," said New Haven-based freelance photographer Lance Evans. "It's only natural that the public would be interested in the personal lives of the men and women behind these discoveries."
Gould insisted that the adoring public is not the problem.
"The paparazzi are far more forceful and disruptive than they need to be," said Gould, who on Aug. 5 pleaded no-contest to a March incident in which he attacked an intrusive paparazzo with a broken graduated cylinder. "I realize they have a job to do, but there is such a thing as taking it too far."
According to Gould, paparazzi often use illegal means to secure photos for such notoriously disreputable tabloids as Science World Weekly and Starz, which bills itself as "your most trusted source for astronomy celebrity news."
Exacerbating the situation is the fact that paparazzi photos often accompany stories that are inaccurate or outright libelous.
"The tabloids make little effort to ground their stories in reality," Gould said. "A recent Science World Weekly story claimed I was starting a project in organic stereochemistry and conformational analysis, which is preposterous. Another tabloid recently ran a contest offering the winner a romantic evening carbon-dating fossils with me in my lab. I never agreed to any such contest."
Gould is urging lawmakers to impose stricter standards on trespassing photographers and implored the public not to purchase tabloids that print "these ill-gotten photos and ludicrous stories."
Many science fans are torn, saying that, while their favorite researchers have a right to privacy, they still crave the latest gossip on them.
"I love Stephen Jay because he's not afraid to take on the historical genesis and broader implications of biological determinism, focusing on the question of the numerical ranking of human groups by measures of intelligence," said Tanya Bymers, 20, of Decatur, GA. "I know I shouldn't, but if I see a tabloid rag with him on the cover, I have to buy it."
Some fans felt less sympathy for celebrity scientists.
"Oh, come on, Stephen," said Trace Leefold, webmaster of www.grantwatch.com, a site that prints rumors about soon-to-be-awarded research grants. "No one put a gun to your head and forced you to enter the field of evolutionary theory. You chose that life."
Alan Heeger and Alan MacDiarmid, co-recipients of the 2000 Nobel Prize For Chemistry, said Gould and his fellow tabloid opponents are too thin-skinned. Dubbed the "Plastics Pals" for their discovery and development of conductive polymers, the researchers are among the few scientists to enjoy a good relationship with the paparazzi, arriving at meetings flanked by a phalanx of photographers.
"If it weren't for all this publicity, it's possible that far fewer people would support our work," Heeger said. "We scientists could actually be in the position of needing to scrape pennies together to complete our vitally important research."
Diehard science fan Jill Krause agreed.
"These scientists are the most important people in America," Krause said. "Our very future depends on them. They are enabling us to live longer and better, discovering the history of the planet we live on, and unraveling the mysteries of the universe. There's no way we'd ever let them work in obscurity. It's laughable."