By Nektaria Riso
Out of the 204 winners of the Nobel prize for Physics, how many were women?
Oh, come on, take a guess.
At least half? No, that is a bit optimistic, try again! One third? One fourth? Come on, 10?
Actually, only two women have ever won the Nobel prize for Physics: the renowned Marie Curie, in 1903, and Maria Goeppert Mayer, for her nuclear shell model, in 1963. Since Mayer’s win 50 years ago, no other woman has won.
Although many women have been deserving of such a prize, Vera Rubin - astronomer, dark matter pioneer, and women’s advocate - sat at the top of the list until her death in 2016. For those who don’t know, Nobel prizes cannot be rewarded posthumously, so Rubin will never win. Ever.
Vera Rubin is to thank for one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century: dark matter. Since this invisible matter makes up around 80% of our universe, Rubin’s discovery opened up an entire new field of discovery and changed the way we view the universe. Many scientists, men as well as women, owe their research and their careers to Rubin. Rubin’s papers, including one about the Galaxy’s motion with respect to cosmic rest, are considered major contributions to astronomy.
In the midst of partaking in ground-breaking research on the nature of the universe, she also played a huge role in paving the way for female astronomers. She mentored other female scientists, like Rebecca Oppenheimer, and pushed for her colleagues to be taken seriously in a field dominated by men. She dealt with sexism on a daily basis (like meeting with other astronomers in the lobby because women were not ‘allowed’ in the offices), published, taught, and (if all that wasn’t enough!) raised four children.
One memorable occasion when Rubin stood up to the sexism of her time occurred when she became the very first woman to observe at the Caltech Palomar Observatory. The other astronomers, all men, told her that there was no ladies room for her in the observatory. In true Vera Rubin fashion, she cut out a skirt from a piece of paper and stuck it on the stick figure of the men’s bathroom door and said, “Look, now you have a ladies room.” Problem solved!
Yet, with all her achievements and various accolades, Vera Rubin was never rewarded by the Nobel committee like many women in physics. The scientific community is still outraged, not that this bothered Dr. Rubin. She claimed: “My numbers mean more to me than my name. If astronomers are still using my data years from now, that's my greatest compliment.”
However, award or no award, her work and the work of other female physicists should never remain in obscurity and should be celebrated and recognized by you and me. Honoring those greatest contributors to the STEM fields is important not only for our sake, but also an inspiration for the future generations to come.
About the Author
Nektaria Riso is an undergraduate student studying Physiology at McGill University. She is currently enjoying her program and exploring research opportunities within her faculty. In her free time, she enjoys volunteering at the MUHC, painting, writing short fiction, and shopping!
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