Star Stuff: The Nobel Prize has 99 problems and gender is one

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Star Stuff is a weekly column by rocket scientist & astrophysicist Summer Ash highlighting some amazing things happening every day on and off the planet, especially great science done by and/or for women. She harnesses her science communication powers to smash the patriarchy and advocate for equality and inclusion across all time and space. Throwdowns with pseudoscience may occur.


Every year in early October, for a week, word is sent from on high (i.e., Sweden) to the world announcing the newest recipients of the Nobel Prize. Too often that word is about celebrating yet another white male, especially when it comes to physics.

On Tuesday, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Barry C. Barish, Kip S. Thorne, and Rainer Weiss (three white males) for the discovery of gravitational waves, aka ripples in spacetime, via the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). Now, I will be the first to jump up and down over how incredible it is that we could even build LIGO in the first place, let alone actually use it to detect when pairs of black holes merge billions of miles away. I have zero beef with that. In fact, I think it's beyond awesome

Credit: LIGO/T. Pyle

My issue is that the Nobels are viewed by many as the end all, be all of scientific recognition, but in reality they perpetuate the inequalities and bias in science so many of us are working to correct.

Kicked off in 1901, the Nobels were founded and endowed by the estate of Alfred Nobel who, after listing all the other bequeathments in his will, decreed that the remainder of his estate should be invested to create a fund, the interest which was to “be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” He further specified that the prizes to each go to a single individual: “one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics [and chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and ‘the holding and promotion of peace congresses’].”

Problem number one here is the “single individual” part. Science has never been a solo endeavor despite all the popular accounts of geniuses toiling away at their desks and black boards, at all hours, behind closed doors. Those people do exist, but they are the exception, not the rule. The first hard lesson I had in college was learning to ask for help in my first physics class instead of thinking I needed to do it all on my own. (SPOILER: it took getting my first D for me to learn to that the TA’s were there to help, not to judge, me.) Now that I’m on the other side, the first thing I try to get across to students, at all levels, is the important role that teamwork and collaboration play in science, not to mention life.

Every scientific discovery made is enabled by the discoveries that came before it. Science is cumulative. It’s taken the work of each and every scientist who ever lived to get us to where we are today. Of course, once upon a time, there were a lot less humans on the planet and consequently a lot less people involved in scientific inquiry. But now with so many universities, national labs, and international consortiums, there are more scientists than ever before, and Nobel’s stipulation that each prize go to one person is hopelessly outdated. To some extent, the Nobel Foundation has already recognized the flaw in this and allows up to three individuals to share a given award, but with the rise of projects such as LIGO and the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), that still leaves a lot of vital contributors out in the cold.

The second problem with Nobel’s original framing of the prize is his stipulation on who was eligible to win: “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.” Did you catch the key word there? HE.

Okay, yes things were different at the time, and yes Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, just two years after the prize was established. However, she wouldn’t have been recognized if it weren’t for a Swedish mathematician on the committee who was an advocate for women in science. He alerted her husband Pierre (who was named by the committee) who then filed an official complaint, thereby getting her name added to the nomination and subsequently the award itself.

The Nobel Prize in Physics wasn’t awarded to a woman again until sixty years later in 1963, when Maria Goeppert-Mayer won for developing her mathematical model of the shell structure of atomic nuclei. It’s now over fifty years later and there has not been a third woman. Let that sink in.

There are a myriad of reasons for this and others have written about them better than I could (like these articles by Phil Plait and Christophe André this week). So rather than tell you about all the women (not to mention the non-binary and minoritized people) who have been overlooked during the past 116 years, I’d like to use the rest of this week’s column to tell you about some of the phenomenal women working in this year’s prize-winning field. Their names might not be thrown around as much this week, but I hope we all will be hearing a lot more about them going forward.

 

Gabriele González. Credit: Maddie Stone via Twitter

Gabriele González is a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Louisiana State University (LSU) as well as the official spokesperson for the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC). Born in Argentina, she moved to the U.S. in 1989 to pursue a Ph.D. in astrophysics at Syracuse University. González has been working on LIGO in one capacity or another since 1993 and in 2001 she was the first woman at LSU to receive tenure in physics. Her research focuses on calibrating LIGO detectors and characterising possible sources of noise that the observatory might detect alongside any true gravitational wave signals. By better understanding what else LIGO might be sensitive to (both natural and artificial sources), scientists can improve how they analyze the data and extract only the signals due to gravitational waves.

 

Nergis Mavalvala. Credit: Courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Nergis Mavalvala is the Curtis and Kathleen Marble Professor of Astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), not to mention the Associate Head of the Department of Physics. A self-described out, queer person of color, Mavalvala was born in Pakistan and lived there through high school. In 1986, she moved to the States to get her undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and then her Ph.D. at MIT. Her doctoral research was actually with Rainer Weiss, one of Tuesday’s awardees. She helped to develop a prototype version of the laser interferometer that is now the heart of both LIGO observatories. Mavalvala’s work at the intersection of quantum mechanics and precision optics earned her a MacArthur Grant in 2010. Her current research in this area could lead to an even greater sensitivity for LIGO. Maybe instead of being able to detect merging black holes billions of light-years away, it might soon be able to sense mergers happening ten or a hundred times more distant.

 

Deidre Shoemaker. Credit: Georgia Institue of Technology, Josh Meister

Deirdre Shoemaker is an Associate Professor of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a founding faculty member of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics (she’s now the director). Shoemaker is on the theoretical side of things when it comes to LIGO. She uses numerical relativity and supercomputers to help model black hole merger events, so researchers can have a better grasp on what type of signals to are formed from various combinations of black hole masses and their distances from Earth. In addition to helping LIGO distinguish true detections from false ones, her work has the potential to open up new frontiers in how we think about gravity.

 

There are countless other people working on LIGO that are worth amplifying but the constraints of spacetime won’t let me include that much awesomeness in one column. In actuality, the full LIGO team is well over a thousand people. The first published paper alone had 1,011 listed authors. None of the women above are working in a vacuum. In addition to being part of LSC, they are each one of many in a research department. They work with other faculty, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students on a daily basis to push the frontiers of physics forward. Those students will in turn do the same one day when they become faculty and have post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students of their own.

Science has always been, and will always be, a team effort. We need to celebrate that aspect and shout it from the rooftops instead of disregarding it by honoring the individual over the collective.

GO TEAM!

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