Field of Science

UNC physics professor held on cocaine smuggling charges

Here's a story that's strange and intriguing. Paul Frampton, a well-known theoretical physicist at UNC-Chapel Hill, has been jailed in Argentina for trying to leave the country with no less than 2 kilos of cocaine smuggled in his baggage. He faces the rather horrific prospect of 16 years in jail if convicted.

The story's strange for several reasons. Frampton seems to be a rather distinguished physicist who has published 73 papers in just Physical Review and Physical Review Letters, the two leading journals in physics. I have never personally interacted with him but know someone who was a graduate student with him in the 80s. That person tells me that Frampton was a helpful and gracious advisor who would take care of his students. I find it very unlikely that a 68-year old theoretical physicist at a leading university who has long since had an excellent reputation in his field would risk it all by brazenly trying to commit such an ill-concealed and obvious crime. Even if he wanted to pull it off it would be rather stupid of someone to just try to smuggle such a large amount of cocaine in his baggage. I don't have any evidence pointing either way, but this just seems to be one of those cases where your gut-feelings (as flawed as they are) point in a preferred direction.

UNC also doesn't seem to be particularly helpful in supporting Frampton. They have suspended his pay for one semester which I find extremely disappointing and unworthy of an institution of UNC's caliber. Yes, it's true that he will be unavailable to teach spring semester, but it seems unfair to blame that on him when the details of the case are not clear. At the very least I would have expected them to offer him a percentage of his current salary, but ideally they should have stuck behind an old and distinguished colleague. What happened to the whole "innocent until proven guilty" adage? There also seems to be some kind of rivalry between Frampton and the provost, also a physicist. Frampton claims that the provost has had a role to play in his arrest and possible framing, perhaps out of sheer jealousy. Some parts of the story seem straight out of a bad Disney movie.

Hopefully the air will clear soon. Until then Frampton will have to stay in Argentina, and we can only hope that he will be exonerated of these rather bizarre charges.

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