Despite Historic Wins for Women, Nobels Still Have a Long Way to Go


As the 2018 Nobel Prizes were awarded this week, optical physicist Donna Strickland was surprised to learn she was the first woman to win in the category of physics in more than half a century.

Professor Dr. Donna Strickland poses for a portrait following a news conference at the University of Waterloo to field questions about her shared Nobel Prize in Physics, October 2, 2018 in Waterloo, Canada.

Visual: Cole Burston/Getty Images

Strickland joins Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer as the only women to receive the physics prize since it was first awarded in 1901. “I thought there might have been more,” Strickland told reporters during a press conference on Tuesday.

One-half of the award went to Strickland and French scientist Gérard Mourou, her former PhD adviser, for their development in 1985 of “chirp pulse amplification,” a technology to increase the intensity of laser beam light. The breakthrough has led to advances in data storage, manufacturing, and perhaps most notably, corrective eye surgery. (The world’s oldest Nobel laureate, 96-year-old Arthur Ashkin, took home the other half of the prize for his development of “optical tweezers” used to maneuver tiny particles and organisms.)

On Wednesday, Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, marking the first time women have earned prizes in both categories in the same year. Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering, and biochemistry, won half of the prize for pioneering work in the field of “directed evolution.” The other half of the prize was split between two researchers, one in Missouri, the other in Great Britain, for related work.

While Strickland and Arnold’s wins are being hailed as a historic moment for the Nobels, many are waiting for the day when such an event is not news. “Going forward, we have to make sure the pipeline of nominees is rich in its diversity,” Peter Dorhout, president of the American Chemical Society, told USA Today. “I mean that in the broadest sense. Yeah, it’s a great day (with the double female victories). That’s worth celebrating. But it is one mark and we have a long way to go.”

Indeed, in the 117 years that Nobels have been awarded for physics, chemistry, and physiology or medicine, only 19 of 600 laureates have been women.

The announcement of this year’s winners came just days after an Italian scientist claimed during a seminar on gender issues that men were being discriminated against in physics. Alessandro Strumia of Pisa University, had been speaking at a workshop in Geneva when he pushed back against efforts to include women in physics.

“I like physics and science because everyone can do what they want. I don’t like it when there’s social engineering to decide how many men, women, and categories there should be,” Strumia said. Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, has suspended the researcher pending an investigation.

Mourou, who shared in the physics prize with Strickland, has also come under fire following his win after a spoof music video he participated resurfaced online. It features female dancers tearing off their lab coats.

Also in the news:

• Last week’s 7.5-magnitude earthquake in Indonesia caused a more powerful tsunami than scientists would have expected. “When events like this happen, we are more likely to discover things that we haven’t observed before,” said Jason Patton, a geophysicist at Humboldt State University in California and consultant for earthquake risk assessment company Temblor. The earthquake occurred off the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia — 50 miles north of the city of Palu. Within 30 minutes, some say, 18-foot waves hit the city, destroying buildings and killing hundreds of people. Scientists say the earthquake was caused by a strike-slip fault movement, which is a mostly-horizontal movement of the Earth’s crust that does not usually result in a tsunami. In this case, they say, it’s possible that some of the crust could have moved vertically, or that an undersea landslide occurred during the quake, displacing more seawater. Palu’s location and the city’s lack of advanced tsunami detection and warning systems may have also contributed to the high death toll. (The New York Times)

• Scientists on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn that the window of time for limiting the most devastating impacts of climate change is rapidly closing. They say preventing global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, a goal set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement and widely acknowledged as the most ambitious of its stated aims, is looking less and less achievable, with only 10 years’ worth of current total global emissions left before that window closes. The pledges made during the Paris accord were acknowledged as insufficient to actually prevent warming of only 1.5 degrees; the IPCC instead estimated that, if all nations fulfilled their pledges, warming would be closer to 2.5 or 3 degrees Celsius, or higher. And that estimate was before the United States pulled out of the agreement. The IPCC is now preparing a report to update world governments on current climate change projections, and share information about the chasm between the Paris agreement targets and actual efforts to limit carbon emissions. The report will be presented in December, at the annual UN climate meeting in Poland, as part of a process called the Talanoa Dialogue. (The Washington Post)

• The Environmental Protection Agency, in its proposed rule change on transparency in science, is asking regulators to reconsider the health risks of radiation exposure. For decades, the official government stance has been that there is no level of exposure that is entirely risk-free. Everything from X-rays to a person’s proximity to a Superfund site, could be considered a cancer risk. The proposed change, however, asks regulators to consider “various threshold models across the exposure range” when assessing the dangers of various chemicals and radiation. While EPA spokesman John Konkus said the agency will continue to follow it’s no-threshold model, the agency in April cited Edward Calabrese of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who argued that small amounts of radiation might even make people healthier. Jan Beyea, a physicist who studied the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant accident, said that voices like Calabrese’s were “generally dismissed by the great bulk of scientists.” (Associated Press)

• Would you consider yourself an optimist? Do you have a business idea so good you’re thinking about leaving your job to pursue it? You may want to rethink that. According to a new study in the journal European Economic Review, optimistic thinking is leading people to start businesses that have no realistic prospect of financial success. Utilizing data from the British Household Panel Survey, a longitudinal study which tracks individuals for 18 years, the researchers focused on 618 self-employed individuals who were asked to forecast their income for the next year — before they set out on the path to entrepreneurship. By measuring the gap between the subjects’ forecasts and their actual incomes, they were able to measure levels of optimism. The pessimists, they found, earned 30 percent more than the optimists. According to study co-author Chris Dawson, that’s because pessimism protects people from taking on poor entrepreneurial projects. “As a society we celebrate optimism and entrepreneurial thinking,” he says, ‘but when the two combine it pays to take a reality check.” (The Independent)

• An EPA drinking-water testing program is raising new concerns about an old class of toxic chemicals. Testing has turned up toxic amounts of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — PFAS chemicals, for short — in municipal water supplies across the country. And residents are beginning to take notice. “PFAS in Michigan is scaring people more than the Flint water crisis,” said U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell during a recent House environment subcommittee meeting. The water- and oil-repellant chemicals are used in consumer products ranging from nonstick cookware to pizza boxes. But they’ve recently been linked to a host of health problems, including thyroid disease, low birth weight, and cancer. The chemicals are thought to seep into local drinking water from landfills, manufacturing plants, and even military bases that use PFAS-based firefighting foam in their training exercises. Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group compiled this interactive map of communities where PFAS has been detected in drinking water. The EPA says it is working on a plan to manage the contaminants, though some in Congress think the agency isn’t moving fast enough. (NPR)

• And finally: Researchers looking at whether vitamin D supplements protect fragile bones gave a resounding ‘no’ answer to that question in a study published this week. After reviewing more than 80 studies, they wrote in The Lancet, “Our findings suggest that vitamin D supplementation does not prevent fractures or falls, or have clinically meaningful effects on bone mineral density.” The review, published Thursday, joins a host of similarly discouraging findings. The vitamin does offer some benefits during pregnancy, or for people with some degenerative diseases, but beyond that, scientists increasingly suggest that the supplements may not be worth the time and money. (Vox