Less than 1% of Nobel prizes in physics are awarded to women - Houston, we have a problem

(Image Credit: Public Domain)

(Image Credit: Public Domain)

This is the Nobel prize, one of the most prestigious international awards. There are five Nobel prize categories (Peace, Chemistry, Physics, Physiology and Medicine, and Literature); today we're going to talk about physics. 

This week, the Nobel committee announced the recipients of the Nobel prize in physics for 2016. Three British physicists had successfully investigated 'exotic phases of matter'. I got excited wondering if any of these brilliant physicists are women. I like it when bad-ass women do excellent science. But, much to my chagrin, and not really to my surprise, I quickly found out they are all men.

Marie Curie 1903 (Image Credit: Nobel Foundation)

Marie Curie 1903 (Image Credit: Nobel Foundation)

*This article will focus on gender, although there are definitely other problems with race, age, etc with the awards

I don't mean this post to at all belittle their work or the accomplishments of any of the physics Nobel prize recipients. They are all excellent scientists. Instead, I'd like to take some time to address something that's very personal to me as a woman in astronomy: Where are my role models?

It's the 21st century. The Nobel prize in physics has been awarded to exactly 204 people since 1901. 2 of those people were women*. 2/204 is LESS THAN 1%. 

The last Nobel prize in physics awarded to a woman was Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for "discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure" and before that .... go all the way back to 1903 to Marie Curie for "joint researches on the radiation phenomena". 

Marie Curie almost didn't even get the Nobel prize. The committee was planning on awarding the prize to only Pierre, her husband, and Henri Becquerel (he discovered radiation). However, luckily one of the committee members was an advocate for women in science and was able to notify Pierre who protested strongly. 

So what's the problem? According to the American Physical Society, 20% of individuals at the bachelor, doctorate, and postdoctoral level in physics are women. So shouldn't 20% of prizes in recent years be going to women researchers?

Part of the problem may be unconscious or conscious bias. Most Nobel prizes for all categories go to men and most often people of European descent. Part of this bias may originate in the fact that the awarding committee is composed of five people nominated by the Norwegian parliament. Nominations are also made by prominent scientists worldwide, so there may be some bias here.

Part of the problem may be the award structure. Currently, the physics award can be shared by three people maximum so these awards tend to go to leaders of large research groups. The entire group contributed to the achievement but only the leaders receive the recognition. In physics, the oldest and most prestigious faculty and research group leaders are almost entirely men (far lower than the 20% APS statistic I presented above). 

Part of the problem may be a lack of transparency. The Nobel committee keeps their decisions secret for 50 years following the announcement of the award. So we have no idea if women were looked over in the 1970s and 80s. And 90s. And 2000s. And 2010s.

It might be time to right past wrongs. We do know that in 1974, the prize was awarded to Antony Hewish and Martin Ryle for their discovery of pulsars. However, Jocelyn Bell made the actual discovery from looking through the radio data. She was not included in the prize, which was instead awarded to her advisor.

Vera Rubin discovered that a vast amount of previously undetected dark matter in galaxies caused them to rotate faster than previously expected. (Image Credit: Stefania.deluca, Wikipedia Public Domain)

Vera Rubin discovered that a vast amount of previously undetected dark matter in galaxies caused them to rotate faster than previously expected. (Image Credit: Stefania.deluca, Wikipedia Public Domain)

Another astronomer who was perhaps passed over (we don't know as of now if she was nominated) is Vera Rubin. There's a hashtag floating around, #NobelforVeraRubin, which advocates for the recognition of her discovery of dark matter. Dark matter spawned entire fields of astronomy and physics, yet Rubin never received a prize. Rubin is 88 and prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, so sadly it might be getting too late for her.

So how do we proceed? Hopefully, we can change the way it is awarded, increase transparency in the process, and right past wrongs. Awards in science should reflect the people who are doing the science and not ugly stereotypes and biases that we're trying to eliminate from the scientific community.