Ironically, Brout might have won the prize if he was a woman. Women live longer than men. But it's not as if women haven't missed out on the Nobel Prize in Physics because they were women.
Two women have been awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics, Marie Curie(1903) and Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1963). 192 men are physics Nobelists, Higgs and Englert make 194.
From what I've come to understand, there is at least one case where "being a woman" is a probable explanation for a physicist's exclusion from a Physics Nobel Prize. Chien-Shiung Wu most likely deserved a share of the Nobel Prize awarded to T. D. Lee and C. N. Yang. It's also hard to explain why another physicist, Lise Meitner, didn't share the 1944 Chemistry Prize awarded to Otto Hahn.
It's not as if the landscape for prospective prizes looks very different. Of the 42 eligible "Nobel class" physicists on Thomson-Reuters "citation laureate" list only two are women. (not that it's the best list or anything, but it's a list, and both Lene Hau and Vera Rubin are widely respected).
Reading through the list of 83 eminent 20th century women physicists who made their contributions before 1976, it's striking to me how many of these scientists made significant contributions despite NOT BEING ALLOWED to, or being accorded second class status of some sort.
Also I was surprised to find that many of the 83 are still eligible to win a Nobel (in addition to having made major contributions, they seem to be still around!):
|This is my favorite discovery from reading |
about the 83 eminent physicists. It's a photo of
Helen Megaw, a crystallographer whose
work on perovskite minerals I had encountered
in my past life as a physics researcher. It was
taken on the occasion of being awarded an
honorary degree a year or two before
her death in 2002 at age 95,
but as you can see by her expression,
she totally won life.
- Betsy Ancker-Johnson 86
- Margaret Burbidge 94
- Jocelyn Bell Burnell 70
- Nina Byers 83
- Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat 89
- Patricia Cladis 76
- Esther Conwell 91
- Cécile DeWitt-Morette 91
- Louise Dolan 63
- Mildred Dresselhaus 83
- Helen Thom Edwards 77
- Magda Galula Ericson 84
- Sandra Moore Faber 68
- Judy R. Franz 73?
- Mary Katharine Gaillard 74
- Gail Gulledge Hanson 66
- Evans Hayward 91?
- Caroline Stuart Littlejohn Herzenberg 81
- Shirley Ann Jackson 67
- Renata Kallosh 70
- Margaret Galland Kivelson 85
- Noemie Benczer Koller 80
- Juliet Lee-Franzini 80?
- Marcia Neugebauer 81
- Helen R. Quinn 70
- Vera Cooper Rubin 85
- Myriam P. Sarachik 80
- Johanna Levelt Sengers 80+
- Sau Lan Wu 70?
I was unable to find information about two others on the list, Christiane Bonnelle and Janine Connes.
There may be two or three future Nobelists on this list, or there may be zero. A few of the women on the list are eminent for their contributions to society, and wouldn't be considered for a Nobel. Sometimes it takes a long time for pioneering work to be recognized as such; sometimes today's hot topic seems inconsequential or worse, wrong, 10 years later. But imagine what the list would look like without our history of discouraging women who felt the calling of physics.
In the earlier parts of this series, I've written about the culture of physics, defined by men for the personality norms of men. It shouldn't be surprising that only a minority of women have been overcoming the barriers it imposes to reach the highest levels. Looking forward, physicists need to recognize that there are more ways to nurture physicists with the diverse talents needed today.
My own view is that physics, broadly defined as figuring out how physical things work, is a fundamental human impulse that gets expressed in many ways. Once you start, you can't stop doing it, even if you've left the profession to do it in non-physics places. It still needs to be done, and the rewards of doing it transcends prizes that stigmatize 194 men and 2 women.