One of the mystifying things about the Jeffrey Epstein saga is how many well-known scientists were sucked into his orbit even after his conviction for pedophilia. Daniel Engber writes about what it was like to be a scientist in Epstein’s circle.
It’s summer 2010, and Jeffrey Epstein has just returned to New York City after serving out an 18-month sentence in Palm Beach, Florida, including parole, for soliciting prostitution from a minor. He’s hosting dinner at his townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. To his left is John Brockman, the literary superagent who seems to represent every scientist who’s ever written a bestselling book (Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman, and so forth). Brockman has brought along a client—a young professor whose line of research interests Epstein. Across the table, and to Epstein’s right, is an aspiring fashion model and her companion.
There’s no cross-talk or conversation between these pairs of guests; it’s more like Epstein has convened two separate interactions for his private entertainment, and these just happen to be coinciding both in time and space. “He would alternate between us,” recalled the professor, who asked that his name not be included in this story. “Sometimes he’d turn to his left and ask some science-y questions. Then he’d turn to his right and ask the model to show him her portfolio.” At one point, a young female staffer stepped into the room to give Epstein a massage, rubbing his neck as he talked and listened.
No one seems to know that much about Epstein’s occupation, but there’s little doubt about the ways he liked to spend his time. “I only have two interests,” he once told a longtime friend and former academic. “Science and pussy.”
The scientists were, in their own way, members of Epstein’s entourage. “Beautiful women are only a part of it,” wrote the journalist Landon Thomas Jr. in a 2002 profile of Epstein for New York. “Because here’s the thing about Epstein: As some collect butterflies, he collects beautiful minds.” That phrase comes up in other places, too: “Jeffrey’s [hobby] was scientists. He liked to collect them,” an anonymous Epstein associate told Connie Bruck for her recent piece on Alan Dershowitz in the New Yorker. Left unmentioned, though naturally implied, is the fact that Epstein’s butterflies were almost always men.
Over time, Epstein would build a network for procuring brilliant men. Chief among his fixers was the superagent, John Brockman. (Brockman declined to comment for this story.) When Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker flew out to a TED conference on Epstein’s private jet in 2002, their agent Brockman was on board as well. (Pinker’s scanty ties to Epstein have been singled out in recent weeks; he says he only boarded Epstein’s jet because of Brockman.) Roger Schank says it was Brockman who introduced him to Epstein, too. “Everybody goes through John Brockman,” he told me.
It is clear that Epstein was a science groupie who liked to surround himself with well-known scientists. But what was in it for them? They must have soon realized that he was a poseur who did not know any science and that his interest was shallow. He would get an expert in some field, suggest an idea and then get distracted and not listen to the rest of what they said.
So why did they hang around with him? If one sets aside the possibility that some may have been attracted by his dangling of young women as lures and tries to put the most charitable spin on their motives, what other reason might there be? It is true that he did fund some of their research programs but there were well-known scientists who, as far as I know, did not get any money from him but still were willing to spend time with him.
My feeling is that they were seduced by the celebrity lifestyle. Being a scientist is not glamorous. The work is hard, and even scientists who have done really important, even ground-breaking, research rarely achieve wealth and fame. While they may be greatly admired by their peers, that circle is small. Not for them are red carpet events, adoring fans, and riding around in limousines and private planes. Some of them must find it galling that people they consider their intellectual inferiors live a life that seems so exciting and yet is so foreign to them and be curious about what it must be like. So when someone like Epstein contacts them and offers to fly them in his private plane to exotic locations and even private islands for events, they may have fallen prey to the temptation to experience life in a way that they could only do vicariously before.
Glamour has always been seductive to a certain kind of mind. Nowadays, we are deluged with stories about the lifestyles of the rich and famous and it is not unnatural to wonder what that life might be like. So perhaps when Epstein offered scientists a chance to taste a bit of it, they jumped at the chance and deliberately ignored all the warning signs that he was a creepy pervert in order not to spoil the fantasy.