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The Nobel Prize In Physics: 117 Years, 3 Women And Counting

Oct 2, 2018
Originally published on October 3, 2018 8:52 am

Donna Strickland seemed genuinely surprised to learn that she was only the third woman to ever win the Nobel Prize in physics.

"Is that all, really?" a flummoxed Strickland asked during a press conference announcing the prize. "I thought there might have been more."

But there haven't been. Only the famous scientist Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer, a nuclear physicist, have won the prize. Curie won in 1903 for her discovery of radioactivity, and Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for theoretical work on the structure of the atomic nucleus.

Strickland's win was announced Tuesday morning at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. She and French physicist GĂ©rard Mourou won a quarter of the prize each for their work creating super-bright, super-fast pulses of laser light. Separately, Arthur Ashkin won half the prize for work using laser light as a kind of tweezer to pinch and move physical objects.

Strickland's work with Mourou was critical to making lasers the powerful instruments we use today, says Margaret Murnane a physicist at JILA in Boulder who specializes in laser science. The technique is known as chirped pulse amplification, and Murnane says "it really was a key enabling discovery that really allows us to use all the power of laser light."

The technology has already been used for eye surgery and laser cutting, Murnane says. In the future may even be the basis for particle accelerators.

Other physicists were elated at the news of Strickland's win. "I think it's fantastic," says Joanne Cole, a particle physicist at Brunel University London in the UK. "It's about time."

"Working in a lab with a bunch of laser jocks? It's great, it really is," says Jane Luu, an astronomer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

The fields of physics and astronomy have a long history of being male-dominated, and struggling with sexism. Albert Einstein was notorious for his poor treatment of his first wife, the mathematician Mileva Maric. In his autobiography Surely You're Joking Mr. Fenyman! the famous American physicist Richard Feynman boasted of working on his equations in strip clubs.

More recently, the fields have been experiencing a #MeToo moment. In 2015, the prominent planetary scientist Geoff Marcy was forced out of UC Berkley after he was accused of sexually harassing students. Earlier this year, cosmologist Lawrence Krauss was forced to step down from his position at Arizona State University over allegations of sexual misconduct. And on Monday, a theoretical physicist at Europe's primary particle physics laboratory was suspended after claiming the field was built by men.

"The vast majority of women that I've spoken to have experienced some sort of discrimination or harassment on account of their gender," Cole says.

Donna Strickland was surprised to learn she was only the third woman to win the prize.

Luu says she herself has frequently experienced discrimination, sometimes unintentionally. For example, when she brought male graduate students to a telescope, "I was always assumed to be the student, and my student was always assumed to be the person in charge of me," she says.

But Cole and Luu add that the real issue starts much earlier. As early as elementary school, the gender gap in physics and math begins to open. And with each level of education, the number of women studying in the field drops. "By the time they get to grad school and the lab, there are not that many of us," says Luu.

Here in the U.S. the gap in women earning physics degrees has stubbornly persisted. For the past decade, only about 20 percent of bachelor's and doctorates in physics have been held by women, according to data held by the American Physical Society. The number of doctorates dropped slightly to 18 percent in 2017, the latest year for which data are available.

"We've tried really hard to encourage more women into physics, but it just doesn't seem to be happening," Cole says.

Luu says she believes continuing lack of women in the field is clearly part of the reason why the Nobel Prize has gone to so few women. Nobel Prizes must be nominated, and Luu suspects there just aren't that many female candidates. "I don't know what fraction, but there will be thousands of nominations for men, and five nominations for women, something like that," she says.

"It's a small percentage, that's for sure," says Goran Hansson, the secretary-general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences during Tuesday's press conference. Hansson says that the academy was taking measures to ensure more women are nominated, though he did not elaborate. "We don't want to miss anyone."

The Nobels are no longer the only science prize in town. In recent years, other prizes funded by wealthy tech entrepreneurs have begun to spring up, offering scientists different opportunities for cash and recognition. This year, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astronomer widely held to have been overlooked for a Nobel Prize, won the Breakthrough Prize for her discovery of a kind of star known as a Pulsar.

Luu herself won another prize, the Kavli Prize, in 2012 for her work on icy objects at the edge of the solar system. "The year I won, there were four women," she says. "That was pretty cool."

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The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded today to three researchers, including Donna Strickland. Strickland is the first woman to share the physics prize in 55 years. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports on what took so long.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Even Donna Strickland herself seemed surprised at how few women have won the Nobel in physics. She was asked about it at a press conference earlier today.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You are the third woman ever getting the Nobel Prize in Physics.

DONNA STRICKLAND: Is that all? Really?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What's your comment on that?

STRICKLAND: Well, OK. I thought there might have been more, but I couldn't think.

BRUMFIEL: It's true. There was Marie Curie in 1903, a nuclear physicist named Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 and now Strickland, a researcher at the University of Waterloo in Canada who won for her work on ultrafast, ultrabright laser pulses. Joanne Cole, a particle physicist at Brunel University London in the U.K., says the gender imbalance in physics exists well beyond the Nobel Prize.

JOANNE COLE: Physics is traditionally one of those subjects that is viewed as being dominated by white, middle-class males.

BRUMFIEL: She says the problem starts as early as elementary school, and it runs all the way through grad school.

COLE: We've tried really hard to try and encourage more women into physics, but it just doesn't seem to be happening.

BRUMFIEL: Here in the U.S., just 20 percent of advanced physics degrees go to women. That number hasn't changed in a decade. The field suffers from more explicit sexism as well. Just last week, a male physicist at a European lab gave a presentation claiming that men were better than women at physics. He was suspended. Other researchers in recent years have lost their jobs over sexual harassment. That's progress, says Jane Luu, an astronomer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory.

JANE LUU: I think that's the right direction, but it's different from being respected for one's expertise.

BRUMFIEL: Luu says she's experienced all kinds of sexism. For example, whenever she went to visit a telescope...

LUU: I would have a grad student. And they were male because (laughter) I didn't have any female grad students. And I was always assumed to be the student, and the - my student was always assumed to be the person in charge of me.

BRUMFIEL: Luu says she thinks that kind of bias contributes to why there are so few Nobel prizes awarded to women in physics. To get the prize, you have to be nominated by another physicist or astronomer, most of whom are men.

LUU: I don't know what fraction, but there will be thousands of nominations for men and maybe, you know, like, five nominations for women. I don't know, something like that.


GORAN HANSSON: It's a small percentage. That's for sure.

BRUMFIEL: That's Goran Hansson, the secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences during today's press conference. He says the academy which runs the Nobel is trying to fix the problem.


HANSSON: We're taking measures to encourage more nominations because we don't want to miss anyone.

BRUMFIEL: Luu says the Nobels need to catch up with the times. Silicon Valley billionaires have begun financing a bunch of new prizes for physicists to win. Luu herself won one of the prizes, the Kavli Prize, in 2012. And she was in good company.

LUU: The year I won there were four women. And that was pretty cool.

BRUMFIEL: If the Nobels want to stay cool, Luu says, they need to make sure they're not overlooking good candidates who just happen to be women. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.