Saturday, December 7, 2013

Physics and Testosterone, Part 5: Missing Nobelists

Tomorrow morning at 9AM CET, the Nobel Prize Lectures in Physics will be streamed live on the internet. François Englert will speak about The BEH Mechanism and its Scalar Boson. Peter Higg's talk is entitled Evading the Goldstone Theorem. Robert Brout, the B in BEH, will not share in the Prize. Not because he didn't make a prize-worthy contribution, but because he didn't live long enough. Brout died two and a half years ago, at the age of 82. Higgs, 84, gets the name recognition because he noticed that the "mechanism" proposed by Brout and Englert implied the existence of a particle. Englert, at 81 is the youngster of the trio. 3 other physicists Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik and C. R. Hagen, did pretty much the same thing, but got their paper out a bit later, so they get to be "almost Nobelists".

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.

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.
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