It was about five in the morning in Ontario, Canada, when Donna Strickland’s phone rang. The Nobel Prize committee was on the line in Stockholm, calling to tell her she had won the prize in physics.
“We wondered if it was a prank,” Strickland said Tuesday, in an interview with a Nobel official after the call. She had been asleep when the call arrived. “But then I knew it was the right day, and it would have been a cruel prank.”
Strickland, an associate professor at the University of Waterloo, shares the honor with two other scientists for their work in the 1980s in transforming lasers into tiny tools that today have countless applications. Half of the prize went to Strickland and her collaborator Gérard Mourou, a professor at the École Polytechnique in France. The other half was awarded to Arthur Ashkin, a retired physicist who worked at the renowned Bell Labs in the United States.
Lasers, focused beams of light particles, were invented in the 1960s. Scientists immediately started tinkering with them, looking for ways to harness and manipulate these powerful devices.
Strickland and Mourou found a way to stretch and compress lasers to produce short, intense pulses that are now used, among other things, in delicate surgeries to fix vision problems. Ashkin figured out a way to maneuver laser light so that it could push small particles toward the center of the beam, hold them in place, and even move them around. This technique became the delightfully named “optical tweezer.” It allowed Ashkin to use the power of light to capture and hold living bacteria and viruses without harming the organisms.
Strickland’s win is historic in more than one way. It’s been 55 years since the last time a woman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. And Strickland is only the third woman to receive the prize in the Nobel’s 117-year existence.
Maria Goeppert Mayer, a German American physicist, won in 1963 for her work describing the structure of the atomic nucleus. Before that, the Polish-French physicist Marie Curie won in 1903 for her role in the discovery of radiation. She shared the prize with her collaborators: her husband, Pierre Curie, and the scientist Henri Becquerel. The French Academy of Sciences had actually only nominated the men for the prize; Curie was included at her husband’s insistence.
After Tuesday’s announcement, Strickland’s name started flying around the internet. Stories popped up celebrating her win and what it means for women in physics and other science fields. This is usually the case with relatively unknown Nobel winners, but there was something quite unusual about Strickland’s blossoming recognition. As the day passed, her story was commemorated in the digital record in real time on Wikipedia.
Unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” Strickland, it was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page.
The construction of the Wikipedia page feels like a metaphor for a historic award process that has long been criticized for neglecting women in its selection, and for the shortage of women’s stories in the sciences at large. To scroll through the “history” tab of Strickland’s page, where all edits are recorded and tracked, is to witness in real time the recognition of a scientist whose story likely deserved attention long before the Nobel Prize committee called.
Strickland herself was surprised to learn she was the third woman to receive the honor in physics. “Is that all, really? I thought there might have been more,” she said at a press conference Tuesday. “We need to celebrate women physicists, because we’re out there. Hopefully, in time, it will start to move forward at a faster rate.”
Forty-eight women have been awarded a Nobel Prize from 1901 to 2017, compared with 892 men. (With regard to the 2018 tally, there are still a few more prizes in other areas to be announced this week.)
Nobel officials recognize this disparity. “We are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded,” said Göran Hansson, the vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation, referring to last year’s crop of all-male winners. “Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries. We have to wait until they have been verified and validated before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”
That is certainly true. But some say nominating committees still overlook potential candidates in their retrospective searches. One example is Vera Rubin, a physicist who pioneered the study of dark matter, the invisible substance that scientists believe makes up about a quarter of the universe. Rubin was a longtime favorite to win the physics prize for her work, which was mostly conducted in the 1970s and ’80s. She died in late 2016. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously.
Some physicists who didn’t support a prize for Rubin argued that her observations provided only indirect evidence for the existence of dark matter, and so she could not be recognized for its discovery. “But similar objections might have been raised about most discoveries that have garnered the Nobel,” Lisa Randall wrote last year in The New York Times. She explained:
Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson found noise in their radio antenna, which other physicists later explained was actually the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation from the time of the Big Bang. But Penzias and Wilson rightly won the Nobel anyway.
In the 1990s, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe accelerates rather than decelerates, as they had originally planned to measure, yet no one knows what provides the dark energy that is responsible, or even if it necessarily is a constant energy, which the term “dark energy” implies. High-temperature superconductivity was discovered as a phenomenon, with no one knowing the underlying mechanism. Yet all of these advancements deservedly earned the discoverers their Nobels, too.
Last month, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a scientist in Britain, received a major award for her work in physics that many argued should have garnered her a Nobel Prize years ago. In 1967, Burnell, then a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, and her supervisor, Antony Hewish, detected a new kind of astrophysical object called a pulsar, a fast-spinning neutron star that emits a bright beam of energy. The discovery won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1974, but Burnell wasn’t among the recipients. Her supervisor and a male colleague were.
Strickland’s historic win comes a day after CERN, the European organization that operates the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, suspended a senior scientist for saying that physics was “invented and built by men.” Alessandro Strumia, a professor at the University of Pisa, made the statement during a recent speech at a seminar on gender issues in physics that was attended by mostly female physicists. Strumia said “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people,” and that between men and women there is a “difference even in children before any social influence.” His remarks were widely circulated online and prompted fierce backlash.
The remarks don’t faze Strickland, who very publicly proved them wrong on Tuesday. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, she called Strumia’s claims “silly.”