Potential Women Nobelists

In the lead-up to the conferring of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, Slate published an article asking why so few women have been endowed with the award. I don’t like many aspects of the Nobel Prize and other awards singling out individual scientists (even in circumstances where they may be deserved), but I agree with several aspects of the Slate piece. There are some interesting facts to consider from the article:

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.

So it is surprising in light of these numbers that women have won exactly zero Nobel Prizes in Physics in the past 50 years. These numbers suggest that there likely exists some bias on the part of the Nobel selection committee. This claim does not seem so far-fetched when considering the blatant oversights of Rosalind Franklin for the Medicine and Physiology Nobel in 1962 and of Jocelyn Bell Burnell for the Physics Nobel in 1974. I have previously mentioned the difficult circumstances under which women must work in our physics departments due to these biases, citing the eloquent piece by Eileen Pollack in the New York Times.

The article goes on to highlight the work of 10 women, which it claims are deserving of the Nobel Prize in Physics:

  1. Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Pulsars
  2. Mildred Dresselhaus – Carbon Materials
  3. Lene Hau – Stopping Light with a Bose-Einstein Condensate
  4. Deborah Jin – Ultracold Fermionic Condensation
  5. Vera Rubin – Calculation Galactic Rotational Speeds
  6. Margaret Geller – Making a Map of the Known Universe
  7. Fabiola Gianotti – Head of ATLAS Team that Discovered the Higgs Boson
  8. Margaret Murnane – Ultrafast Pulsed Lasers on the Femtoscale
  9. Helen Quinn – Prediction of the Axion
  10. Lisa Randall – General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory

I’m not an expert (far from it!) in particle physics, so I have just regurgitated the Slate list. Even then, putting Lisa Randall on this list seems a little far-fetched. She may, though, be a candidate for the Fundamental Physics Prize, which again has only bestowed individual awards to men (Fabiola Gianotti shared an award for being a part of the team that discovered the Higgs).

In the field where I am more knowledgeable, Deborah Jin, Mildred Dresselhaus and Margaret Murnane would all be worthy recipients of the Nobel. They have all been recognized with numerous awards in their respective careers.

The Slate article does a great job of helping us get to know the listed women and their work a little better. Hopefully a woman (or several!) will be recognized for their scientific accomplishments soon by the Nobel committee and end this unwarranted drought.

2 responses to “Potential Women Nobelists

  1. Well, the actual existence of axions haven’t been confirmed by any experiment. Randall’s work, while provocative, have not been confirmed in experiment, nor has it led to a revolution in theoretical physics, a la Wilson’s Renormalization Group. The other names on the list are all very appropriate, however.


  2. Interestingly, I just saw Sigma Xi’s Nobel prediction pool put Dresselhaus in the Chemistry bracket for carbon nanomaterials, which I thought seemed incredibly strange considering how nearly all her work is on the physics. I’m a huge fan of a Dresselhaus-nanotubes prize in Physics. https://nontrivialproblems.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/a-nobel-for-nanotubes/


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