Visible Women

A woman just won the Nobel Prize for Physics for the first time in 55 years

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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She’s also only the third woman in history to be awarded the honour.

Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer. Until recently, those two women were the only female scientists to hold the Nobel Prize for Physics in the history of the Swedish award. Curie was recognised for discovering radiation, while Goeppert-Mayer was awarded the prize for investigating nuclear structures.

But today a third woman joins their ranks: Canadian physicist Donna Strickland. The scientist, along with her French colleague Gérard Mourou, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the pair’s work in laser physics. They share the prize with Arthur Ashkin, an American scientist, who invented “optical tweezers”.

Strickland and Mourou were recognised for developing what the Nobel committee called “high-intensity, ultra-short optical pulses”.

These pulses – their scientific name is “chirped pulse amplification” – are used in laser eye surgery and generate targeted beams for use by surgeons without damaging the eye itself. According to the Nobel committee, Strickland and Mourou’s technology could be applied in many other fields, including solar energy and electronics.

“We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there. I’m honoured to be one of those women,” Strickland said in a press conference after the announcement at the Nobel institute in Stockholm, Sweden.

Only six women in the entire history of the Nobel Prize have been recognised for their work in the fields of science. Marie Curie was awarded the Nobel Prize twice, once for Physics and once for Chemistry. Her daughter, Irène, was named the Nobel laureate for Chemistry in 1935 for her work in the field of radiation. Other female Nobel laureates in science include Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who used X-rays to investigate crystals and Israeli scientist Ada E. Yonath, also in crystallogy.

The recognition of Strickland’s work, and the work of female scientists in general, could not come at a more essential moment. Just this weekend a physicist at Europe’s nuclear research centre Cern called physics a discipline “invented and built by men”. Professor Alessandro Strumia also used a series of graphs to show that women were being hired over men whose work had been cited more frequently than their own, ‘proving’ that physics becoming “sexist against men”.

Marie Curie was one of the trailblazing women in science

Cern has since suspended Professor Strumia and will begin an investigation into his presentation. “Cern always strives to carry out its scientific mission in a peaceful and inclusive environment,” a spokesperson for Cern said in a statement.

It looks like there might be a job going at Cern soon. Might we suggest Donna Strickland for the role?

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.

Images: University of Waterloo

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Hannah-Rose Yee

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