Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Speaking of Science: Here’s to women scientists

Speaking of Science
Talk nerdy to us

Donna Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, is photographed in her lab after winning the Nobel Prize for Physics. (Peter Power/Reuters)

Yesterday, I had the unexpected pleasure of writing about the announcement that Donna Strickland was among three researchers being awarded this year's Nobel Prize in physics — the first woman to receive the prize in more than a half-century.

The long run of all-male recipients isn't because women haven't been doing prize-worthy science. Exhibit A: Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Exhibit B: Vera Rubin. Exhibit C: Lise Meitner. Exhibit D: Chien-Shiung Wu. I could go on and on and on …

But a host of explicit and implicit biases kept these women's work from being celebrated. Bell Burnell was a graduate student when she built the telescope and analyzed the data that led to the discovery of pulsars — spinning cores of collapsed stars that are among the most important objects in astrophysics — and the work of students is rarely recognized. Meitner was Jewish and had to flee Germany before the publication of her groundbreaking research on nuclear fission; the article ran without her name, and the prize was awarded only to her collaborator. If any justification has been offered for the fact that neither Rubin, whose research proved the existence of dark matter, or Wu, whose work on the Manhattan Project earned her the nickname "the first lady of physics," weren't awarded the field's top prize, I haven't seen it.

Yesterday reminded us how high barriers to women in physics have been — and how much female researchers did to overcome them.


Strickland, who helped develop the process that led to the fastest and most powerful lasers ever wielded by humans, traced her research back to Maria Goeppert Mayer, the last woman to win the Nobel Prize in physics. (The only other female laureate is Marie Curie.)

"The work I cite her for started the whole field of multiphoton ionization" (the process of exciting atoms using multiple photons of light) "which is the first thing our laser was used for in my thesis," Strickland told an interviewer from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, which awards the Nobels.

"But she didn't get to be recognized as scientist, even though she was doing incredible work."

Nepotism rules (not to mention the underlying sexism that assumed that a scientist's wife couldn't also be a scientist) prevented Goeppert Mayer from getting teaching positions at the universities where her husband worked, even though she had a PhD. She spent much of her career as an assistant, a volunteer professor and unpaid contributor. But at Argonne National Lab, where she was a part-time researcher, she helped develop a model of nuclear structures that would eventually win her the Nobel.


I thought it was inspiring — and telling — that Strickland used her day of celebration to recognize the research done by her predecessor. Women scientists are often astoundingly supportive of one another, even as they navigate a system that doesn't always support them. When Bell Burnell, the pulsar discoverer, was awarded a $3 million prize for her work last month, she donated it entirely to fund graduate degrees for women, underrepresented minorities and refugees. Vera Rubin, who died in 2016, was celebrated for being a generous mentor and a fierce advocate and activist.

For Strickland and Frances Arnold, who was one of the people awarded the chemistry prize today, for Jocelyn and Vera and Chien-Shiung and Lise and for all the women whose contributions have gone unrecognized — here's to you.

— Sarah

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