A Columbia University professor who incorporated (himself) stripping, ninjas and images of 9/11 in a lecture on quantum mechanics has attracted widespread attention. While he's not talking and Columbia officials aren't saying much, they have now confirmed that he remains in his job, and some colleagues and his wife are offering a public defense -- and urging people to be open-minded.
Emlyn Hughes, a professor of physics at Columbia, this month welcomed students to the first session of Frontiers of Science, a core requirement for undergraduates at Columbia College, by slowly undressing as the rap song “Drop It Like It’s Hot” by Lil Wayne played in the background.
The campus blog Bwog obtained video footage from the Feb. 18 lecture, showing students laughing, crying out in surprise and shouting expletives as Hughes changed into a costume of black pants, shoes, t-shirt and a hoodie -- at one point wearing nothing but his underwear. After Hughes sat down on a chair, his face hidden from view, two people dressed as ninjas appeared on stage. They placed two stuffed animals on bar stools, blindfolded them, and proceeded to execute one with a sword. Meanwhile, a video running in the background showed scenes from 9/11, the war on terror and World War II.
Columbia said it would review Hughes's actions. Robert Hornsby, assistant vice president for media relations at Columbia University, on Thursday confirmed that Hughes met with campus officials to discuss the incident, and remains employed. But he added in an e-mail: “We have no additional information or comment about this matter."
Hughes's performance went viral, making headlines in The New York Daily News, The Huffington Post and international news organizations like The Daily Mail. It even reached more specialized publications like The Underwear Expert -- one of few websites with measured praise for Hughes. “We’re all for stripping down to underwear, so props for that,” the website wrote.
Hughes concluded his performance -- and began the formal part of his lecture -- with an appeal to his students.
“In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain and start over again,” Hughes said. “Nothing you have learned in your life up to now does in any way help prepare you for this, because everything you do in your everyday life is totally opposite what you’re going to learn in quantum mechanics.”
Hughes noted the “impossible challenge” of trying to teach a topic scientists have devoted their entire lives to during a series of hourlong lectures, but added that his students are required to pass Frontiers of Science to earn their undergraduate degrees from the college.
The full video is embedded below. It includes some profanity.
Ivana N. Hughes, who is married to Emlyn Hughes and serves as associate director of Frontiers of Science, is speaking out on her husband's behalf, even as neither Hughes is responding to questions.
Ivana Hughes said in a letter to the editor of The Columbia Spectator that “Current and future students should shed preconceptions and walk into their Frontiers lectures and seminars with an open mind.” Hughes wrote the goals of the course are “to teach students how to think like scientists” and “to expose students to frontiers in four scientific disciplines.”
“Professor Hughes’s act of changing clothes on stage has been interpreted in many different ways,” Ivana Hughes wrote. “I challenge Columbia students to see the metaphor in yet another way -- stripping themselves of the expectation that Frontiers will be an unimportant and uninteresting course, one that will not inspire them.”
The media scrutiny and backlash from the administration does not appear to have discouraged Hughes, although the second session of Frontiers of Science featured a more subdued performance. Dressed in the same outfit he changed into during his performance on Feb. 18, Hughes welcomed students back to “the most famous classroom in America” with rapper Coolio’s 1995 hit “Gangsta’s Paradise.” Apart from a three-minute segment when twin young women appeared on stage and pretended to take notes in sync, the lecture proceeded largely without unusual interruptions.