Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Nobel Women - Physics

The 2016 Nobel Prizes are being announced this week, and so far it's still a dude-fest. So, while we don't have any new women Nobel winners yet to celebrate, I figure maybe it's time to celebrate some of the women from history who've taken home the gold medal.

The post about women who've won the Nobel Prize in Physics is depressingly short. In the 121 years since Alfred Nobel created his award, only TWO women have won for their work in the field of physics. The most recent was Maria Geoppert Mayer, in 1963. And before that? It was Marie Curie in 1903.

Sixty years between the first and the second. And nearly that many years between the second and today. The snarky part of me wonders if we'll actually have to wait again until 2023, and for someone named Maria?

But seriously. I know it's still incredibly tough for women to find academic success in Physics, for a multitude of reasons. Here's hoping that starts to change quickly. In the meantime, we can celebrate Marie and Maria and encourage other young women to follow in their stead.

Marie Curie
Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 along with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel "in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel."

Marie was the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize, and it almost didn't happen. The prize committee had originally only intended to give the award to the two male scientists. It wasn't until Magnus Goesta Mittag-Leffler, himself a scientist and an advocate for women in science, made a formal complaint that they included Marie Curie in the nomination.

Maria Goeppert Mayer
Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 along with J. Hans D. Jensen and Eugene Wigner "for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure."

Maria, like many other female scientists married to male scientists at the time, did much of her important work in unpaid or part-time positions because of anti-nepotism rules at most major universities. Despite this ridiculous limitation, she still maintained a stellar record of research and publication, and developed a mathematical model for the structure of nuclear shells, explaining the reasons behind her "magic number" of nucleons that result in stable configurations.

Like Marie, she earned her Nobel by applying her brilliant mind through diligence research in order to answer the age-old question of "why?" Fortunately for her, the committee did not need to be convinced she deserved it. Even they could recognize magnificent contribution to science.

Perhaps as more women are seeking advanced degrees in physics, we'll start to see more women winning Nobel Prizes. One can hope.

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