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.
The absurdity of the Nobel Prizes in science
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.”