These Women Should Win a Nobel Prize in Physics | Gabriel Popkin |

On Tuesday, the Nobel Committee will bestow everlasting glory and a sizable chunk of coin on one, two, or three of the world’s physicists. While prognosticators will argue until moments before the announcement about who is most likely to win, history suggests one pretty safe bet: The physicist (or physicists) speaking in December in Stockholm will be male.


No Nobel Prize has come close to being equitably distributed by gender, but physics has the worst record of them all. Zero women have won it in the past 50 years. Exactly two women have won it ever. One of them was Marie Curie, who won with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel in 1903, at a time when women were almost entirely excluded from science. Curie began her career as a governess because she couldn’t find a graduate school in Poland that would accept her. She eventually pursued her scientific career in France, and her co-discovery of radiation was so important that no committee, however packed with sexist troglodytes, could have denied her the award and maintained a shred of credibility.


After Pierre’s death, she continued her research and was awarded the chemistry Nobel in 1911 for the discovery of the elements radium and polonium. It was the first time anyone had won two scientific Nobel Prizes, a feat equaled only twice since.


The other female physics laureate was just as much of a shoo-in, and the inequity her story exposes is perhaps even more shocking. In the late 1940s, when Maria Goeppert-Mayer brilliantly elucidated the shell structure of the atomic nucleus, she was doing her research as a volunteer at the University of Chicago. (She also had a part-time paid post at nearby Argonne National Laboratory.) Goeppert-Mayer’s husband, Joseph, was on the Chicago faculty, and the university’s anti-nepotism policies forbade hiring the spouses of faculty. The University of Chicago wasn’t mired in some curious gender backwater; Goeppert-Mayer had worked under similar arrangements when her husband was on the faculties of Johns Hopkins University and Columbia University. (Today, by happy contrast, universities often compete with lavish offers for scientific power couples.)

Goeppert-Mayer’s Nobel-caliber research made her an attractive hiring prospect, and the newly founded University of California–San Diego gave her a full professorship in 1960. My grandfather, hired in 1963 as the university’s first chairman of philosophy, recalled overhearing the university’s male physicists arguing about which of them would be the first to win a Nobel. But Goeppert-Mayer beat them all, sharing the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics with Hans Jensen and Eugene Wigner, who won for separate work. It might be uncharitably noted that longtime family breadwinner Joseph Mayer never received a Nobel.

Since 1963, 51 physics Nobels have been awarded, and 51 men or groups of men have been honored. Most of these men were no doubt deserving. And plenty of deserving men have been passed over in the history of the prize, perhaps most prominently Einstein himself. (He won the 1921 prize for elucidating the photoelectric effect, one of the building blocks of quantum theory, but his even more revolutionary general relativity theory was never honored.)

Still, the half-century omission of female physics laureates is startling at a time when women have made major gains on other physics-related benchmarks. Women earned 20 percent of U.S. physics Ph.D.s in 2012, up from 2 percent in 1966; they hold 14 percent of U.S. physics faculty slots and have headed some of the nation’s top physics departments and major scientific agencies. Five women have been president of the American Physical Society (the sixth was just elected and will serve in 2017); the society’s current and previous executive officers are also women. Among the world’s thousands of female physicists, plenty have made Nobel-caliber contributions.


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