Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Posts tagged ‘women’

Women in Science 2016: Deborah S. Jin

In just a few hours, the world will know the names of the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Sadly, we know one name that will almost certainly not be among them: Deborah S. Jin of JILA and NIST.

Dr. Jin died of cancer last month at the too-young age of 47. I don’t recall ever interviewing her, but I know she spoke at the CLEO 2005 conference, right around the time I started working at OSA.

She and her team made the first fermionic condensate, a new state of supercold matter, and as a result, she was on a lot of short lists for the Nobel Prize. For a long time I’ve been wishing, hoping, that some woman would be found worthy enough to join Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer on the list of Nobel physics laureates. It’s been more than half a century now since the latter won. Yes, I know that Dr. Jin won a slew of other awards, one even named for Goeppert-Mayer but for some reason, our civilization is stuck on the notion that the Nobel outshines them all.

And, yes, I fully realize that some worthy scientists somehow never got the Nobel. Human mortality has to do with that. The Nobel awarders have strict rules against posthumous prizes; there was a minor kerfuffle a few years back when one of the non-physics Nobel laureates had died just two or three days before the announcement, and the committee sincerely did not know about the fellow’s passing. News of Dr. Jin’s death has probably made its way to Stockholm by now, though, so we won’t see a repeat of that situation again.

One of the past presidents of the D.C. Science Writers Association has made a strong case for amending the Nobel Prizes to reflect today’s scientific reality, both in terms of the new fields that have emerged in the last century and the interdisciplinary nature of much modern research. (Never mind the collaborative nature of research — most teams have more than three members nowadays.) I’m a bit surprised at how traditionalist the online comments are trending. I would have expected a few more along the lines of “Yes, please, finally!” But even scientists (and science fiction fans, but that’s another story) can be among those most resistant to change.

Anyhow, let’s see whether the LIGO team gets honored already. Back in February, I was quietly pleased to learn that the first gravitational wave hit the detectors on September 14, 2015 — and September 14 is my birthday. The second gravitational wave arrived on December 26 — the birthday of one of my college roommates. Looking forward to many more detections, regardless of what Stockholm thinks.

Women in Science 2016: Elsa Garmire

Women’s History Month began yesterday. This year, I would like to highlight the achievements of a number of amazing women whose work may not be known to the general public, but who are doing, or have done, important research. I won’t limit myself to the field of optics, but I shall start with it.

Elsa Garmire is currently a professor of engineering at Dartmouth College up in New Hampshire. She has had a five-decades-long career in physics, which included a year of service as OSA’s 1993 President (the second of five women to hold that position over the past century).

Garmire was only one of two students to earn her Ph.D. under Charles H. Townes during his stint at MIT in the mid-1960s. Obviously, women in physics were few and far between in those days, more so than now. However, Townes had four daughters of his own and realized that young women were perfectly capable of studying science. Plus, Maria Goeppert-Mayer received the Nobel Prize in physics the year before Townes did.

Once Garmire became a postdoctoral fellow out in California, though, she wasn’t taken as seriously as a scientist as she might have been. And she was living in the trippy, groovy era of the Sixties. So she explored her artistic side and ended up playing a major role in the creation of laser light shows [PDF].

Eventually, she became a professor at the University of Southern California before moving to Dartmouth. After a successful career in lasers and nonlinear optics, she has decided to retire this year. I wish her well and hope that she will continue to stay in touch with OSA.

It’s been 50 years now…

Dear Nobel Committee for Physics at the Swedish Academy of Sciences:

I realize, of course, that by now you have probably already made your decision about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. After all, the award is scheduled to be announced on October 8, which is a mere three weeks from today. Obviously it takes some time to prepare the gold medals and certificates and whatnot, and to write up the press release extolling the achievements of the winners — I’m using the plural here, because you choose more than one laureate in the vast majority of years. And I know you try assiduously to uphold the original intent of Alfred Nobel’s will.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of all the events that happened in 1963, from the good (the “I Have a Dream” speech, the early stages of Beatlemania) to the bad (the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the JFK assassination). The event that’s relevant to this discussion is the 50th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physics to Maria Goeppert-Mayer (along with two male scientists) for her work on nuclear shell structure.

In other words, this year makes 50 years since a woman received a Nobel in physics. Chemistry and medicine/physiology have had several female laureates in the past half-century — from Dorothy Hodgkin to Carol Greider — but not physics. There have been women who were mysteriously left out (Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Chien-Shiung Wu) and at least one female physicist who won the medicine Nobel (Rosalyn Yalow).

I’m certainly not recommending that a woman get a Nobel in physics just because of her gender — duh! However, every year the world has at least a few more female physicists than the year before, and some of them, somewhere, must have done some Nobel-quality research by now. Please recognize her (or them). Please don’t wait another half-century to name a third physics laureate.

Sincerely yours,

A concerned female holder of a B.S. in physics