SciTech

Woman wins Nobel Prize in Physics for 3rd time in history

Donna Strickland (back, second from right) and her high-intensity laser research team at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Strickland is the only living woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. (credit: Courtesy of Abdullah.rahnama via Wikimedia Commons) Donna Strickland (back, second from right) and her high-intensity laser research team at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. Strickland is the only living woman to have won the Nobel Prize in Physics. (credit: Courtesy of Abdullah.rahnama via Wikimedia Commons)

On Tuesday, Oct. 2, Dr. Donna Strickland made history, and received the Nobel laureate in Physics. An associate professor at the University of Waterloo, she is joined by Gerard Moreau for their research into high-intensity laser pulses. Strickland and Moreau’s work led to huge advances in the technology of eye surgery, especially with regards to myopia (they share the distinction with Arthur Ashkin, a scientist at Bell Laboratories, for his research in optical tweezers, high precision tools used to examine extremely small particles).

Strickland is one of the only three women to have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and the first in 55 years — the others being Marie Curie (1903) and Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1974).

Wen looking at the data from the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, the lack of female Physics Nobel Prize winners seems suspicious, since the rate of female Physics Ph.D.’s far exceeds that of female Nobel Prize winners. In fact, the research shows that there is less than a two percent chance that only male scientists would have won the award for such a long duration of time.

Until her Nobel win, Strickland and her work did not have a Wikipedia page; Wikipedia administrators claimed that “this submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article,” according to Vox. In contrast, her colleague Moreau has had a Wikipedia page for over a decade.

Also controversial is Strickland’s status at the University of Waterloo. Many question her title as only an associate professor when her work is influential enough to earn a Nobel Prize.

Strickland’s Nobel win has provoked conversations about the lack of recognition of women’s achievements in physics, but it isn’t the most controversial event to do so in the last few weeks.

During the last week of September, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) hosted a workshop on the intersection of gender diversity and nuclear research, mostly attended by women early in their research careers. A CERN physicist named Alessandro Strumia gave a lecture purportedly on the statistics of gender in the field of physics; however, the talk turned out to be an anti-diversity tirade.

Strumia labeled efforts to support women in science a “victimocracy,” railed against the “PC thought police,” and explained that it’s more difficult for men in research than women, citing data that has been widely decried as pseudoscientific (including some anecdotal evidence about women who had been chosen over him for research positions). He also made several factually inaccurate claims — for example, that women physicists like Marie Curie have always been “welcomed” by male researchers after they show “what they can do.” Despite having a Nobel and the discovery of two elements to her name, Curie was rejected by the French Academy of Sciences.

CERN later released a statement disavowing the derogatory remarks, stating that they are strongly committed to promoting diversity in their organization and that Strumia has been suspended.

The American Institute of Physics found that for the past 15 years in the United States, women and men are roughly equally likely to attain internships and research positions. Yet, the Nobel Prize overwhelmingly acknowledges men’s achievements.

One possible explanation? Throughout the world, women have much less access to resources than male researchers. A paper published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal shows that women are less likely to earn research funding than their male counterparts. This undercuts their ability to have access to resources that are crucial for their research.

Strickland’s achievement is a sign that despite these inequalities, women are doing groundbreaking work in physics. Although women face many obstacles as they surge forward in their fields, Strickland shines as a beacon of hope in the otherwise male-dominated world of academia.