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Private jets, parties and eugenics: Jeffrey Epstein's bizarre world of scientists

Luke Darby
Photograph: Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

According to his indictment, over the course of many years Jeffrey Epstein “sexually exploited and abused dozens of minor girls at his homes in Manhattan, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida, among other locations”. It continues: “in order to maintain and increase his supply of victims, Epstein also paid certain of his victims to recruit additional girls to be similarly abused.”

Some of his victims were reportedly as young as 14. Virginia Giuffre was one of those girls, claiming in newly unsealed documents that she was “recruited” at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida by socialite, heiress, and Epstein’s alleged accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell in 2000, when she was just 16. Giuffre now describes her time with Epstein as being forced to be a “sex slave”.

Jeffrey Epstein attends an event in New York City with Ghislaine Maxwell in 2005. Photograph: Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Shortly after her sworn deposition became public Epstein was found dead in his holding cell, apparently from suicide.

Epstein’s lifestyle has been well documented: he owned a private island in the US Virgin Islands and jetted around the world with rich and powerful men, including the Clintons, Trump, Woody Allen, Larry Bird and Prince Andrew.

He had been indicted in 2008, when he walked away with a “sweetheart deal” that gave him minimal jail time and shielded any possible co-conspirators.

From left, Donald Trump and his future wife, Melania Knauss, financier Jeffrey Epstein, and Ghislaine Maxwell pose together at Mar-a-Lago in 2000. Photograph: Davidoff Studios Photography/Getty Images

One aspect of Epstein’s life of luxury seems incongruously out of place though. He surrounded himself with prominent scientists, Harvard professors, multiple Nobel Prize winners, authors, almost exclusively men – Epstein kept his social gatherings stocked with some of the world’s most eminent figures in this world.

He would host dinners at his Upper East side Manhattan apartment and invite a mix of leading scientists and people from the world of fashion and modeling. One scientist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Slate that there was virtually no interaction between these two sets of guests . “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.” Slate claimed that a young “female staffer” emerged in the middle of one of these dinners to give Epstein a neck massage while he talked.

When he gathered 21 physicists on his private island for a 2006 meeting about gravity, he reportedly had three to four young women in tow at all times. He also met many scientists at an annual gathering hosted by John Brockman, a literary agent who represented famous science authors such as Stephen Hawking and Jared Diamond. Nobel-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who discovered the quark and was represented by Brockman, thanked Epstein for his financial support in the acknowledgments section of his 1995 book, The Quark and the Jaguar.

A partial list of the biggest scientific names in Epstein’s orbit, according to the New York Times includes “the theoretical physicist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking; the paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould; Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling author; George M Church, a molecular engineer who has worked to identify genes that could be altered to create superior humans; and the MIT theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek, a Nobel laureate”.

Epstein called himself a “science philanthropist”, and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations such as Harvard, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute. At one point, he was allegedly giving as much as $20m a year to fund scientists. Some institutions and researchers continued to take Epstein’s money even after his 2008 conviction, like MIT, according to BuzzFeed News.

Epstein called himself a 'science philanthropist' and donated handsomely to prestigious organizations

Joi Ito, the head of MIT’s world-famous Media Lab issued an apology last week for having accepted donations for the Media Lab and his own tech startups. In his open letter on the MIT Media Lab’s website, he said: “I take full responsibility for my error in judgment. I am deeply sorry to the survivors, to the Media Lab, and to the MIT community for bringing such a person into our network.

“Regrettably, over the years, the Lab has received money through some of the foundations that he controlled. I also allowed him to invest in several of my funds which invest in tech startup companies outside of MIT’s.”

Last month Jenna Marshall, a spokesperson for the Santa Fe Institute, said in the BuzzFeed News story that a $25,000 donation in 2010 from Epstein “prompted our leadership to decide not to accept any additional funds from Mr Epstein or related sources”. They were, she said, considering donating an equal amount to a charity working with victims of sex trafficking.

Several years after his 2008 conviction, publications including Forbes, the National Review, and HuffPo all ran stories on Epstein praising him as a selfless philanthropist, “a hedge-funder with a zealous science background”, and “one of the largest backers of cutting-edge science around the world”. None of the articles mentioned his criminal history, and an investigation by the New York Times claimed they were used as part of a public relations campaign to revamp Epstein’s image. All three publications have since deleted or amended articles cited by the New York Times.

By most accounts, he would engage with his guests at his science-related parties but never for very long or very deeply, often derailing conversations by abruptly changing topics or turning other people’s comments into jokes.

Still, some of the scientists seemed smitten. In a 2002 profile of Epstein for New York Magazine, Martin Nowack, now a professor of biology and mathematics and head of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics at Harvard, said that he once broke out a blackboard during dinner with Epstein and, for two hours, gave a mathematical description of how language works. “Jeffrey has the mind of a physicist. It’s like talking to a colleague in your field. Sometimes he applies what we talk about to his investments. Sometimes it’s for his own curiosity. He has changed my life. Because of his support, I feel I can do anything I want,” Nowack said.

Jeffrey has the mind of a physicist. He has changed my life. Because of his support, I feel I can do anything I want

Martin Nowack

Lawrence Krauss, a physicist who retired from Arizona State University, even continued defending Epstein after his 2008 conviction, telling the Daily Beast in 2011: “As a scientist I always judge things on empirical evidence and he always has women ages 19 to 23 around him, but I’ve never seen anything else, so as a scientist, my presumption is that whatever the problems were I would believe him over other people.” He added, “I don’t feel tarnished in any way by my relationship with Jeffrey; I feel raised by it.”

Other scientists seem to have been drawn to the attention and spotlight that Epstein gave them. Evolutionary biologist George Church, one of the few researchers who has apologized for having contact with Epstein, which he attributes to “nerd tunnel vision, told STAT News that “he is used to financiers, technologists, and celebrities seeking him out, and has become a quasi-celebrity himself”.

Many of the scientists and researchers began distancing themselves from Epstein after 2008 and have publicly condemned him since his arrest in July. Scoene author Steven Pinker, who was flown to a TED Conference on Epstein’s private jet in 2002, including Daniel Dennetand John Brockman, has recently refuted any suggestions that he knew, or had any relationship with Epstein. In a response published on the @evolutionistrue website, Pinker said: “The annoying irony is that I could never stand the guy, never took research funding from him, and always tried to keep my distance. I think the dislike was mutual – according to a friend, he ‘voted me off the island’.”

“Given my longstanding distaste for everything Epstein, it’s galling to be publicly associated with him based on some photos and mutual associates.”

He explained the private jet to the TED conference, in a tweet last month:

Dennett has since said he had never heard of Epstein when he boarded the jet.

But while Epstein may not have been able to contribute much to the conversations he cultivated around him, he did have sincere interest in at least some scientific topics.

The New York Times did a deep dive into Epstein’s scientific beliefs in an article titled Jeffrey Epstein Hoped to Seed Human Race With His DNA. The Times’ reporters found that Epstein was apparently fixated on “transhumanism”, the belief that the human species can be deliberately advanced through technological breakthroughs, such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence.

At its most benign, transhumanism is a belief that humanity’s problems can be improved, upgraded even, through such technology as cybernetics and artificial intelligence – at its most malignant though, transhumanism lines up uncomfortably well with eugenics.

Eugenics is the belief that humanity can be improved by controlled breeding, selecting for preferable traits and minimizing less desirable ones. Alan Dershowitz, professor emeritus of law at Harvard and a former lawyer of Epstein’s, said in the New York Times investigation that Epstein would at times steer conversations about how to improve the human race genetically, an idea that appalled Dershowitz because of the overlap with Nazi theories about eugenics.

Epstein was allegedly fascinated with and inspired by the Repository for Germinal Choice, which was founded in Escondido, California, in 1980 by Robert K Graham, an avowed eugenicist and tycoon who got rich developing shatterproof eyeglass lenses. Graham’s goal was the “strengthening of the human gene pool”and he would accomplish this with the Repository, a sperm bank where all the donors were Nobel laureates. At least that’s how it was supposed to work: according to a 2001 story in Slate, Graham only ever convinced three or five (the stories vary) to actually contribute, and the Repository shuttered in 1999.

But Epstein was apparently taken with the idea. In his version though, rather than a bunch of lettered academics, he’d be the one “strengthening the gene pool”. Starting in the early 2000s, he reportedly told multiple people that he wanted to impregnate as many women as he could to distribute his genes as widely as possible. Several acquaintances told the New York Times that Epstein mentioned using his sprawling New Mexico ranch as a base of operations, and at least one person said he planned to impregnate up to 20 women at a time.

The puzzle at the heart of Epstein’s fandom is how it lasted for so long and why he managed to draw so many scientists into this circle. As Katha Pollit, writing in the Nation last week said: “What I can’t get over is how Epstein successfully weaseled his way into science at the highest level by cultivating major figures in the field socially and spreading his wealth around. Science! The very temple of the pursuit of truth. Call me insufficiently jaded, but am I wrong to expect more of those we rely on to combat all of the nonsense swirling around us?”