Tag Archives: Women in Physics

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of STEM

There were a couple interesting articles in the New York Times in the past couple weeks that caught my eye. The first article, linked here, is about the government (in particular Senator Matt Bevin of Kentucky) trying to get more students to obtain college degrees in STEM fields as opposed to degrees in the humanities. This would be done by reducing or completely cutting the financial aid for some humanities/social science majors. Strangely, the article singled out French literature on more than one occasion as an example of a seemingly frivolous humanities degree.

Before I continue, let me reveal some of my biases here. I had originally chosen to major in comparative literature for my undergraduate degree and only decided to switch fields to physics after two and half years as an undergraduate. This decision was made certain after I took my first course in literary theory (ick!!).

With that preamble, I can safely say that I greatly value a broad liberal arts education. The study of subjects like philosophy, history, linguistics and literature make us more culturally and morally aware, make us more open-minded and generally make us richer citizens. Furthermore, people are more likely to succeed in a field where their strongest motivations lie. They should not feel discouraged from pursuing these ideals. They already know that they are likely to make significantly less money than STEM majors over a lifetime, yet they choose to pursue those fields nonetheless. Overall, I don’t necessarily see financially biasing STEM fields as harmful, but we must be aware of the extent to which this is done. The humanities are important, and the perspective they bring should not be underestimated.

The second article, linked here, concerned sexual harassment in the STEM fields. Though the data on this is sparse, the anecdotal evidence suggests that this happens more often than we’d like to think. The article is worth reading, and one wonders whether we could learn something from humanities departments with regards to this matter.

Happy reading!

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.

The Embarrassing Scarcity of Women in Our Field

Author Eileen Pollack wrote an article in the New York Times entitled Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science? a little while ago highlighting the lack of women physicists in the US. Pollack takes the effort to interview many female students at the undergraduate and graduate level as well as faculty members, giving us a profound look at the problems plaguing female retention in the physical sciences. She also presents us with statistics and salary numbers to further back up her claim, supplementing the personal anecdotes with a concreteness that make the article both readable and illuminating. That she was one of the first two women to be granted an undergraduate degree in physics at Yale University gives her a personal knowledge of the issues at hand.

She claims that the reason for the dearth of women in the physical sciences is largely cultural. When one writes as well as she does, this viewpoint is difficult to argue against. There is ample evidence backing up her claim, most notably that other countries, such as Spain and France, do not have such low ratios of female to male physicists. She goes on to discuss the perception of women in the US as somehow lacking femininity if they decide to pursue the physical sciences. The problem that is perhaps the most difficult to address are the tacit slights aimed at female students from their male counterparts. When students gather to solve homework problems together, women’s voices are given less weight and are often disregarded. Though this is not quantifiable, I have seen this happen many times and perhaps have even been guilty of it myself. The consequences of these attitudes are that they chip away at the confidence levels and ultimately dissuade women from pursuing higher degrees in physics.

One of the most startling pieces of information in this article is that women are also guilty of this discrimination. For instance, a woman faculty member will be more likely to recommend a male for hire than a woman with almost identical qualifications. Even if the woman is recommended, her salary is usually reduced compared to male counterparts by about $4,000.

Though I could go on, let me stop my blather here and link you again to the original article, as I cannot do it complete justice. I should also mention that the author is coming out with a book on this very topic in September 2015, which I look very forward to reading.