It was exquisite timing. 24 hours after CERN physicist Alessandro Strumia had offended many people by announcing that “physics was built by men”, Donna Strickland was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics together with Arthur Ashkin and Gerard Mourou.
She is the first woman to be honoured in this way for 55 years and her story made news headlines around the world. It’s wonderful, of course, because it reminds the world that women are worthy recipients of such a prestigious prize.
It’s also depressing because Donna is one of just three women ever to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Physics. (The other two are Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963 for her discoveries about the nuclei of atoms and Marie Curie for research on radioactivity in 1903.) Three female winners in over a century is not the best advertisement for women in physics and, I fear for some, Donna’s story could reinforce a false impression that women who are good at physics are the exception, not the rule.
Nothing annoys me more than the suggestion that most girls and women don’t like or can’t do physics. As the producer of The Life Scientific on BBC RADIO 4 for the last seven years, I’ve been lucky enough to talk, at length, to dozens of female physicists working in the UK. They are all professors with impressive academic credentials and they all love what they do.
Many have talked to Jim Al-Khalili with great honesty about the particular challenges they faced pursuing their passion for physics, and their stories help to shed light on why so few women have achieved Donna’s dizzy heights.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell famously missed out on the 1974 Nobel Prize for Physics for the discovery of pulsars. She was a PhD student and, as was customary at the time, it was awarded to her supervisor Anthony Hewish and the head of the new Radio Astronomy Department in Cambridge, Martin Ryle. The hurdles she overcame just to get to Cambridge are less well known.
Aged 7 at Lurgan Preparatory School in Northern Ireland, ‘the girls were sent to the domestic science room and the boys were sent to the science lab’ she said. Until her parents kicked up a massive fuss. As the only woman studying physics at Glasgow University in the 1960s, she was reliably greeted by wolf-whistles and stampeding feet when she entered the lecture hall. This behaviour persisted for three years. Later she struggled to be taken seriously when she was a wife and mother and working part-time. “I think people underestimate the grit that was needed just to be there”, Jocelyn told Jim.
It’s not for nothing that Jocelyn chose to donate $3 million from the Breakthrough Prize she won last month to increase diversity in science .
Science A-levels were not an option for Professor of Space Physics at Imperial College London, Michele Dougherty’s all girls’ school in Kwazulu-Natal. Her father helped her to catch up on the work she’d missed. When a supportive boss, David Southwood promoted her to be a principle investigator on the Cassini mission to Saturn, she admits to being both ‘excited and terrified’. It seems unlikely that she would have volunteered for the job, herself. ‘I think he knew me better than I knew me at the time’ she said.
In 2008 Michele Dougherty was awarded the prestigious Hughes Medal for physics joining past winners of this prestigious physics prize, including Alexander Graham Bell, Neils Bohr and Peter Higgs.
Stories like these (and there are many more from similarly distinguished and determined female physicists) serve as a useful reminder of why, to date, so few women have been awarded Nobel prizes for physics and, I hope, will encourage girls, in particular, to pursue their passion for physics undeterred.
Times are changing but not fast enough.
- Anna Buckley is the producer of The Life Scientific on BBC RADIO 4 and author of a new book based of the series. The Life Scientific: Explorers (published by Weidenfeld & Nicoloson) includes the inspiring life stories of several women physicists, including Jocelyn Bell Burnell and Michele Dougherty.