Theoretical physicist Shohini Ghose has two great passions: physics, and advocating for gender equity in the sciences. This week, her passions converge as she chairs the 5th IUPAP International Conference on Women in Physics at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Canada – the first time this prestigious conference will be held in North America. Why the focus on women? “There are still relatively few women in physics – and the higher up the ladder in academia or industry you go, the fewer women you find,” says Ghose. “Yet the laws of physics themselves are gender neutral, and the beauty of the universe is equally accessible to everyone. So why so few women, and how can we change that?”
For the next four days, delegates from over 50 countries – including astronomer and TED Prize winner Jill Tarter – will gather to showcase and celebrate scientific work in all areas of physics, and build a strong, diverse and inclusive worldwide physics community. To celebrate the conference launch today, we asked Ghose to share her favorite facts about women and their contribution to physics. “Women have made many important contributions in science, including physics, and have personally inspired me to become a physicist myself,” says Ghose. “Here are just a few.”
Only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie won in 1903 for her studies of radioactivity. She shared the prize with her husband Pierre Curie and with the other discoverer of radioactivity, Henri Bequerel. Originally, the Nobel prize committee had only selected Pierre Curie – but he refused to accept it without proper acknowledgement of Marie’s contribution. In 1911, Curie won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery and studies of radium and polonium. To this day, she remains the only person – male or female – to win Nobel Prizes in two different scientific disciplines.
Maria Goeppert Mayer won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for her model of the structure of the atomic nucleus. Goeppert Mayer faced a great deal of gender bias in her career: she had to work in unpaid positions at Columbia University and University of Chicago, where her husband was employed.
British astronomer and astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin – one of my all-time favorite physicists – established that the sun and other stars are all composed mostly of hydrogen. Payne-Gaposchkin later became the first woman to chair a department (astronomy) at Harvard.
Austrian physicist Lise Meitner first developed the theory explaining the process of nuclear fission, but she was overlooked by the Nobel Committee, who instead awarded Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn the prize in 1944. Meitner came to be known as the “mother of the atom bomb,” although she refused to work on the Manhattan Project after fleeing Nazi Germany. Element 109 is called meitnerium in her honor.
Albert Einstein called German mathematician Emmy Noether – author of Noether’s Theorem, a fundamental idea on which much of modern physics is built – a creative mathematical genius. Her theorem, published in 1918, states that if an object has symmetry – i.e., if it looks the same regardless of changing locations or times – then this leads to conservation laws in nature. A simple example is a movie of the motion of a ball when you throw it. The motion looks the same if you run the movie backwards in time (time symmetry). This means that the total energy of the ball remains the same (conservation of energy) – the energy just gets converted into different forms as the ball moves. This is a simplified example, but the theorem is widely applicable and is a real workhorse of modern physics.