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Women in Physics

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In 1944 the German chemist Otto Hahn was awarded a Noble Prize for his work on nuclear fission - the process that lies at the heart of nuclear bombs and power stations. The Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who was the official leader of Hahn's team, and who also worked out the theoretical explanation of their experimental discoveries, was not even mentioned in the Noble committee's announcement. (Wertheim)

Thirteen years later the Chinese-American particle physicist Chien-Shiung Wu would likewise be left out when the Nobel committee made its announcements.

Likewise English astronomer Jocelyn Bell, who discovered pulsars, would also be denied a share in the Nobel that went only to her (male) supervisor.

Reports in the past showed that the highest percentages of women among students awarded a doctorate in physics are 20 to 27 percent ( India, Australia, Poland and France) and the lowest percentages are 8-9 percent (Japan, South Korea, Netherlands and Germany).

An international survey of around 900 women physicists in more than 50 countries found that the factor most frequently contributing to their success was encouragement from their families (parents and husbands). Also mentioned were the support of high school teachers, advisors, and professors; their own determination, will power and hard work; and participation in important international projects.

The outcome of the survey showed somecultural differences from the countries represented, with family issues such as marriage and child care important factors in some countries, and less so in others. Women in developing countries are more likely than women in developed countries to be married (four out of five in the first case, compared to two out of three in the second). (Barbosa)

The problems that the women surveyed mentioned were problems with balancing family and career and defeating the commonly encountered bias that women cannot do physics. The women who responded shared a strong passion for physics, and three out of four said that they would choose physics again, despite any difficulties or barriers they had encountered.

A report from Japan stated that it takes women an average of ten years more to advance to the rank of professor than their male colleagues.

A study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found women professors consistently had less laboratory and office space and were paid less than their male colleagues.

"As of 1996, Princeton physics department had still not given tenure to a physicist not sporting the penile appendage" (Wertheim).

What We Did to Get Where We Are:


o The Working Group on Women in Physics was established by IUPAP in 1999 to understand why such a small number of women go into physics as a profession, and to develop strategies for increasing their participation and impact in the field.
- The Working Group of Women in Physics came up with these steps to help solve the problem:
Giving the same opportunities and encouragement to girls as to boys to learn physics. Encouragement of parents and teachers strengthen girls’ self-confidence • Ensuring that female students are given an opportunity for success that equals that of male students.
• Promoting equity through policies and practices by establishing and publicizing transparent and fair mechanisms of recruitment and promotion of physicists and for review and approval of requests for funding.
• Enabling career success by providing a family friendly environment (child-care facilities, flexible working schedules and employment opportunities for dual career families)
• Including women in university and institute governance, particularly on key policy committees and in leadership positions; as well as on national planning and review committees.
• Collecting, maintaining and making available statistical data, including gender.
• Having scientific societies focus on increasing the number and success of women in physics (making available statistical data, identifying and publicising role models, and appointing women to important committees and editorial boards). (Barbosa)

Currently women can and do contribute to physics and, through physics, to the welfare of humankind, but only in small numbers: women are an underutilized "intellectual reserve" (Conference).

A progressingly large number of girls have gained a little bit of exposure to physics by taking it in high school. By 1997, about one-half of high school physics students were girls. About 400,000 girls take high school physics every year.

Even though women are now earning more than one half of all bachelor’s degrees in the U.S., physics is not attracting women as quickly as other fields. When compared to other fields, women are largely underrepresented in physics at both the bachelor’s and PhD levels.
The Chinese Physical Society reported that 15% of its members are women.
The University of Potchefstroom reported awarding six first-level degrees to women and 61 to men
over the last 10 years.
At Tel Aviv University there were 12 Ph.D. degrees awarded to women and 53 awarded to men from 1998 to 2001.
Through all of the surveys early encouragement to pursue education and an exposure early on to science are important. Most of the women surveyed had decided to go into physics early on.
There are many explanations as to why women have not played a very large role in physics. It is possible that women still experience discrimination today.

Women in the Past

There have been numerous women in the past who can be considered as great physicists. So many, that it would have been very difficult to find the time to write about each woman. So we have chose a few that seemed the most interesting to us.

Marie Curie (1867-- Probably one of the most well known female scientists that has ever lived.

Inge Lehmann (1888-1993) - An interesting woman who lived to be 105 years old.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) - A scientist, writer and an advocate of women's rights.

Marie Curie

Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained. - Marie Curie

Marie Curie is one of the most well known women scientists. Marie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. Even through the death of her mother and a sister before she was 11, Marie still managed to graduate from high school at the age 15 with the highest honors. In 1891, she moved to Paris to attend Sorbonne University. While obtaining a physics and mathematics degree, she was introduced to Pierre Curie, a physics professor at the university. They fell in love and were married a few years later in July 1895. But only nine years later in April 19, 1906, Pierre was killed in an accident leaving Marie alone to take care of the family and continue their research. In 1914, when the World War started, Marie decided that she wanted to help out with the war effort using her science. Knowing that x-rays out in the war field could save many lives, she created mobile x-ray stations and trained females to be able to work them. Marie lived a very selfless life by always working hard and always trying to figure out how she could help others.

Contribution to Physics:

Marie and her husband Pierre discovered two radioactive (which was a term that Marie made up) substances, radium and polonium. Which then led to Marie being the first female to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903.

Other Achievements and Awards:

Gave birth to her daughter, Irene in September 1897.

In July 1898, Marie and Pierre published a paper revealing their discovery of radium and polonium.

1900- Became the first woman faculty member at one of the top training schools for women teachers in France.

In 1903, completed her doctoral thesis, and became the first woman to receive a doctorate in France.

After Pierre's death in 1906, Marie took over his job at Sorbonne and became the first woman professor there.

Established a scientific institution in Pierre’s memory, the Radium Institute.

In 1911, Marie became the first person to win a second Nobel Prize. She won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her determining the atomic weight of radium and polonium.

Created the mobile x-ray stations and saved many lifes in the World War.

On July 4, 1934, Marie Curie died of a blood disease that often results from too much exposure to radiation.

Inge Lehmann

"You should know how many incompetent men I had to compete with - in vain!" - Inge

Inge Lehmann was born in 1888 in Copenhagen, Denmark. While growing up Inge attended a co-educational school that taught that both sexes should be taught the same thing. Finally in 1920, after twelve years of schooling at the University of Copenhagen and the University of Cambridge with a break to work for six years in between, Inge obtained her masters degree in mathematics. Eight years later, she earned a second degree in geodesy which is the geological science of the size and shape of the earth.

Contribution to Physics:

- In 1936, Inge discovered that the earth had an inner core located 5121 km below the earth's surface.

- Also in 1936, Inge discovered the Lehmann Discontinuity which is the region that divides the core into the inner and outer parts.

Other Achievements and Awards:

1928, was named the first chief of the seismology department of the Royal Danish Geodetic Institute

She was the first president of the European Seismological Commission which she held for 25 years

In 1936, published her paper P'- which led to the finding of the Lehmann Discontinuity

In 1941, founded the Danish Geophysical Society

In 1964, awarded the Wiechert Medal by the Deutsche Geophysikalische Gesellschaft Also

in 1964, awarded an honorary doctorate of science from Columbia University

In 1971, was presented with the William Bowie Medal

In 1997, creation of an award in her honor, The Lehmann Medal

In 1993, Inge passed away at the age of 105

Sofia Kovalevskaya

"Say what you know, do what you must, come what may." - Sofia

Sofia was born January 15, 1850 into a Russian family of nobility. Sofia was educated by governesses and tutors and always showed a great interest towards math when she was younger. In September 1868, Sofia married Vladimir Kovalevsky in September 1868 so she could attend a university in Switzerland because young, unmarried women were not allowed to travel alone. Sofia and Vladimir did not actually fall in love until many years later when her father died. When Vladimir committed suicide in about 1881, Sofia used all of her energy towards her work. Sofia did meet another man a few years later, Maxim, but they were both too involved with their work for them to have a relationship. Sofia died at a relatively young age, but she did some incredible things in her lifetime.

Contributions to Physics:

"On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point" which was a paper that Sofia wrote that explained that for an unsymmetrical body, it's center of mass is not necessarily on an axis in the body.

Other Achievements and Awards:

In 1874, Sofia was granted a Ph.D. from the University of Gottingen

In 1880, presented a paper on Abelian integrals

Gained a tenured position at the University of Stockholm

Appointed an editor for a mathematics journal

In 1885, published her first paper on crystals

Appointed Chair of Mechanics

Also in 1885, she co-wrote the play "the struggle for happiness" with a friend

In 1888, she won the Prix Bordin with her paper "On the Rotation of a Solid Body about a Fixed Point"

Wrote Recollections of Childhood

On February 10, 1891, Sofia Kovalevskaya died after living a short life of only 41 years


Barbosa, Marcia."Working Groups."2005: 3/10/2005 .

Bortoletto, Daniela. "Women in Physics: Spotlight Scientist." 1999: 3/12/2005 .

Byers, Nina."Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics: Inge Lehmann." 2001: 3/12/05 .

Carlowicz, Michael. American Geophysical Union."Inge Lehmann." 3/12/2005 .

Grinstein, Louise S., Rose K. Rose, and Miriam H. Rafailovich, eds. Women in Chemistry and Physics. Westport, Connecticut:Greenwood Press, 1993.

Ivie, Rachel and Katie Stowe. “Women in Physics,2000.” Statistical Research 2005:3/10/2005 .

Ogilvie, Marilyn, and Joy Harvey, eds. Women in Science. New York: Routledge, 2000

Riddle, Larry. "Biographies of Women Mathematics: Sofia Kovalevskaya." 1998: 3/12/2005 .

Robertson, E.; O'Connor, J. "The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive: Sofia Vasilyevna Kovalevskaya." December 1996: 3/12/2005 .

Wertheim, Margaret. “Boys Club: The Story.” 1997: 3/10/2005 .

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