Symmetry Breaking

By Julianne Dalcanton | July 25, 2008 2:10 am

As it seems to by symmetry week here at CV, I thought I’d touch upon something related to one of the many events that happened during a recent vortex of unbloggability (i.e., when everything that I wanted to write about would only be publishable on a pseudonymous blog).

Astronomer Fritz Zwicky frequently employed the term “spherical bastard” to describe a group of rival astronomers, since in Zwicky’s view, they were bastards any way you looked at them. While Zwicky had no patience for this group, I would argue that fully-symmetric bastards are the easiest of assholes to deal with. No one is surprised when a known, calibrated asshole acts up. We all just adjust the gain on our emotional response and carry on. I’ve been quite fond of many assholes through the years, and when I look back, the one trait they shared was that while they may have been ornery, they were at least predictable.

In contrast, I cannot abide asymmetric assholes. These are the people who stroke those who are of use to them, and claw those they deem inferior. They ignore you before you win a fancy fellowship, but suddenly talk to you when you do. They flatter established faculty, but don’t hesitate to sabotage the same professor’s students.

Let me warn you, o asymmetric asshole — people talk to each other. That person you’re actively trying to sabotage? They have mentors. Who are sometimes the people whose behinds you’re trying to kiss.

You may think you’re getting away with it. But trust me. You’re not. Or at least not for long.

  • Risa

    Bravo, Julianne. Sadly, as one slowly recognizes moving up the hierarchy, this species isn’t all that rare. Even more sadly, I’m just not so sure your last statement is true, in the broader sense. Obviously, the asymmetric assholes lose your respect. But do they lose that much else?

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Speaking of assholes, I need some advice. Last year I received a very nasty email, completely unprovoked, from a well-known young prof at a well-known university. I don’t know this person and have never even met him. The letter was to the effect that my latest preprint was total rubbish and that I should withdraw it immediately.

    Well, I ignored this letter and the paper went on to be published in a leading journal. End of story. But maybe not: the following thought occurred to me: suppose this creep is sending out such letters to all sorts of people, including young people who might be shattered to get such a missive from somebody so well-known? I toyed with the idea of writing to his chairman. A little investigating showed, however, that this creep is known to be “a real asshole” by the students and junior faculty at his institution and beyond, though he is thought perfectly charming by more senior people [sound familiar?] So I thought: everyone knows he’s a creep and gets really obnoxious with anyone with whom he disagrees, unless he fears them. Probably the chairman knows this already. So no need to write. Or is there? Or is this Just Not Done? I’m fairly senior myself but this is the first time I have had this experience, at least at this level of assholery.

  • Richard E.

    It is similar to the “fight or flight” reflex — except that this is the “kiss it or kick it” response.

  • Chris

    I used to work for one of these asymmetric assholes. In the five years that I’ve known him he has cycled through about 12 employees and two graduate students. The strange thing about him is that he does seem to care about the people he works with, and honestly wonders why people leave him in such fits of anger. The best way to handle them is to identify, avoid, and freeze them out. I watched a vibrant research lab wither under this man’s leadership, and my belief is that everyone who left was happier and better for it.

  • Kim

    Here’s a question for you people. Are there more assholes in academia than in other kinds of workplaces, regardless of shape (symmetric or asymmetric)? If there are, why would that be?

  • Pieter Kok

    Kim, I doubt it.

  • Sean

    BRB, my rough guess is that it just wouldn’t do much good. Preventing assholery is not really within the power of most department chairs. Better to spread the word informally, so people know what to expect from this person — although that’s by no means a very efficient process.

    And Kim, I also kind of doubt it. Different occupations no doubt nurture and produce different specialties of asshole, but I suspect they can be found everywhere.

  • Anon

    Just one data point, but in my experience, there are far fewer assholes in academia than in finance. Look on the bright side.

  • Haelfix

    Finance has a culture of it. I’ve seen perfectly normal kids change within a year before my eyes the second they become an Ibanker or something like that.

    I’d say its probably the pressure cooker and the 17 hour work days, its not exactly healthy on the human physique.

  • The AstroDyke

    A relevant funny:

    This week the Wif’s been in non-stop meetings, as the ad-hoc expert explaining how a big corporate re-org will affect different groups. Though she’s a tech geek, what she’s doing this week is pure management. Yesterday, her boss complemented her ability to manage the egos & personalities of these new-to-her groups, suggesting that her time in academia gave her the skills to deal with “difficult” people.

    Starting grad school, I had no idea those were some of the skills I needed to learn.

  • Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    Symmetry is never broken. I always bewilder by the animosity, often rabid, of some physic-ists blogs. This happens in biolog-ical blogs, too. For example the ongoing, violent, evolutionary wars are a salient feature of popular evodevo-anthro blogs. One useful corollary though, to derive from this warfare, is that for every AH there is an -AH?
    The asshole set is in veritas, all of us, rational fools??

  • Asphericity

    Love the phrase “asymmetric assholes,” as well as “vortex of unbloggability.” Thanks for expanding my vocabulary today. You have all my moral support in your campaign of stamping out asymmetric assholery.

    I’ve got one of these aspherical bastards in my department. He is not only spatially asymmetric, as you describe, but temporally as well: when you meet him in the hallway, you can never tell when he’ll simply exchange polite pleasantries with you and when he’ll go off on a rant about how the department is going to hell in a handbasket and it’s all because of YOU. Keeps things interesting around here for sure!

  • Eugene

    Hmm. I wonder if I am a symmetric bastard or an asymmetric asshole.

  • Julianne

    Eugene — it probably depends on whether you feel generically ornery or specifically diabolical.

  • Solomon

    If you really want to read about asymmetric assholes let me introduce you to:

    1. Dr. Frank I.M. Moral, Chairman of Neuroscience Department
    2.Dr. Christian C. Heat, Chairman of neurology Department
    3. Dr. Stewart P. Retender, Vice Chairman, Neuroscience Depratment
    4. Dr. David S. Neaky, Neuroscientist
    and a whole slew of other assholes of a bit lesser asymmetry.

  • dave

    what about those who are “homogeneous spherical bastards” – no matter how you look at them or how you cut through them, they’re still bastards

  • Eugene


    Hmm, I’d like to think that being specifically diabolical is a more interesting way of life than just being maximally ornery. On the other hand, being evil is hard work, what with constantly having to scheme and such.

  • Robert

    How are “asymmetric bastards” different from sociopaths? Are sociopaths just better at manipulation (good enough at it not to be recognized as manipulators), or is a level of evil distinction?

    My wife had a quote she got from somewhere: “the person who treats you nicely but the waiter poorly isn’t a nice person.”

  • Boltzmann’s Reptilian Brain

    Sean Said:
    BRB, my rough guess is that it just wouldn’t do much good. Preventing assholery is not really within the power of most department chairs. Better to spread the word informally, so people know what to expect from this person — although that’s by no means a very efficient process.

    Thanks Sean. Well, I don’t like badmouthing people, even assholes; but as I said, I would *really* not like to think that this twerp might write such a letter to someone less thick-skinned than myself. So it’s a real problem. As I said, his twerpery is apparently well-known locally, but it does not seem to have done him any harm. I hope that this particular kind of assholery is not common…….

  • michael


    There’s a similar phrase Milan Kundera relates in “Unbearable lightness of being (iirc)” that you should really judge a person not based on how they treat other people, but based on their behavior towards animals. With an animal there’s ultimately little if anything an animal can usually do with regards to mal-treatment while even the waiter can spit in your soup.


  • ST

    The only way I have been able to deal with assholes is to be unapologetic about my self-interest.

    When I was a beginning grad student, I would slog the night before and make some progress, but when it was time to talk to my advisor, my office-mate would end up taking up most of the limelight.

    One day when he started doing his thaang, I said (without losing my temper) “*I* did the work. Why are YOU talking?” or something like that. I never had any problems with him ever again.

    There is nothing I hate more than when someone else takes the credit for my initiative, work, etc. I have had much better success in handling this issue after I decided that I am not going to pretend that I didn’t care.

    Its important to be a good person, but it is also important NOT to be a nice guy to dickheads out of (social) fear. If you fuck with me, I am going to bring shit to you in buckets.

  • daisyrose

    It is not the absence of faults but the presence of eminent qualities – some people simply can not bear the impeccable wisdom of mediocrity.

    It is equally shocking when someone of note is disqualified for bad behavior!

  • Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    Hillel the Elder, ca. 2100 YA-years ago- regarding-the questions at hand here-invented the Golden Rule”: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. The rest is commentary; go and learn…..the commentary [sic]” [as reported in the Pirkei Havoth 1:12]. Also, Hillel is reputed with the invention of the ancestor of the sandwich to manifest grateful-and graceful- freedom. Golden Rule N. 2: “Following the Golden Rule -N.1- and eating good sandwiches accelerates human blogging to beneficent realms”

  • Solomon

    Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza,

    Pirkei Avot, not Havot – from the word Av (father), and the plural form Avot (fathers).

  • Pieter Kok

    According to Dostojevski, one should judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners.

  • Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza

    solomon: got carried away with the praxis of the lexis and aH symmetry..[i may be mildly disgraphic] ???????

  • Lawrence B. Crowell

    The human mind is a delicate instrument. Under sufficient perturbtations it can begin to behave abnormally.

    One of the problems with our modern society, which existed in prior societies to some degree as well, is that an enormous emphasis is place upon competition and the high price on “proving oneself.” This can easily lead to narcissitic behavior. I think this is what often lies behind a person who we might identify as the asshole. We must also be honest and admit the whole process of academia can easily foster this behavior as well. The corporate system is rife with this. If one is familiar with the history of Stalinist Russia it is apparent that much the same existed. However in that system there was a high measure of paranoid behavior as well.

    On a somewhat tangential issue, the GOP candidate for the President spent 6 years in the Hanoi Hilton. That frankly couldn’t have been a positive development in McCain’s psychology. His outbursts of anger and some strange ideas he has might indicate he has some demons running around his head. If the guy should become President he will have the nuclear launch codes.

    Lawrence B. Crowell

  • Solomon

    Roberto Gonzalez-Plaza,

    ???? ?? ??

  • pollux

    They’re all around, it seems. From my side, my experience was in my first international meeting. I don’t have a permanent job… yet… still a fresh post-doc.
    This guy came and started to say that I did some things wrong and even suggested that I was not honest in my last paper. I was really upset the way he put things and used his “authority” in the field to put pressure on me. From the conversation, I guess he did not even read the paper. Only after I went back to the Hotel I could calm down and see things clearer… and how an asshole he is/was. As always, afterwards, I heard about several other stories about him.

  • Kaleberg

    If you have ever attended a Passover seder you may remember the comparison between Pharaoh and Laban (the Syrian). Since the seder as we know it is modeled on a Greek symposium, this kind of question comes up, and the official consensus is that Laban was more evil than Pharaoh because Laban had it in for everyone, but Pharaoh had it in only for the Jews. Things are clearly different in academia.

  • JCF

    Lawrence B. Crowell:
    Regarding McCain’s sojourn in the Hanoi Hilton, one might reasonably conclude on reviewing the facts that it has proven a very positive development, as overcoming extreme adversity through courage and tenacity can provide uncommon fortitude to certain individuals, as the fight against polio did for FDR. McCain’s 26 years in Congress, marked more by principle than expediency, certainly point to that. Who knows what “demons” run through anybody’s head?

  • Samia

    Aren’t women generally chastised a little more harshly for speaking or acting in their self-interest/defense? We’re frequently expected to “go with the flow” and not stir up the waters. In some environments, it may be less okay for a woman to stand up for herself than for a man to do the same thing, especially of the asshole in question is a man.

  • Allyson

    Samia, I think the assholeness in that sceniario goes something like this:

    Woman standing up for herself = emotional
    Man standing up for himself = passionate

    But seriously, only assholes think that way. Fuck em!


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