As recently as the end of World War II, science and scientists were a gentleman’s club, and women need not apply. WC mentions this because terrific astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell received a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics this week.
Just 51 years after her discovery of pulsars; just 40 years after her colleague, Anthony Hewish, was given the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physics, for the work described in the paper they co-authored.
Hewish, to his credit, always thought that Burnell deserved to be co-recipient of the Nobel Prize. It was Burnell, not Hewish, who discovered the tracings of that first pulsar in the signal noise of those first, primitive radio telescopes.1 The Special Breakthrough Prize is a very belated, but richly deserved, consolation prize. Burnell, typically for her, donated all the $3 million prize to support and encourage physics students from under-represented groups. Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a towering scientist and a remarkable person.
She’s not the only woman scientist to be treated unfairly when Nobel Prizes were being handed out.
The analysis and explication of the DNA molecule is a towering achievement of science. Understanding the double helix has been a keystone in modern biology. It wouldn’t have happened without the x-ray crystallography diffraction work of Rosalind Franklin. In particular, Photo 51, the X-ray diffraction image of crystallized DNA taken by Raymond Gosling in May 1952, working as a PhD student under the supervision of Rosalind Franklin was critical to James Watson’s and Francis Crick’s work in understanding the structure of DNA. James Watson was shown Photo 51 by his collaborator, Maurice Wilkins, without Rosalind Franklin’s approval or knowledge. A lot of folks think Wilkins simply stole Franklin’s hard work before she published it. Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1962. Franklin, who died far too young of ovarian cancer, in 1958, did not.2
Lise Meitner is the most appalling, shocking case of all. Meitner and Otto Hahn led the small group of researchers who first discovered nuclear fission of uranium when it absorbed an extra neutron; the results were published in early 1939. Meitner her nephew Otto Frisch were the first to articulate a theory explaining how the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts. They showed uranium nuclei split to form barium and krypton, accompanied by the ejection of several neutrons and a large amount of energy. Meitner showed that ejected neutrons and energy explained the loss in mass. They also first realized that Einstein’s famous equation, E = MC2, explained the source of the tremendous releases of energy in nuclear fission, by the conversion of rest mass into kinetic energy, now popularly described as the conversion of mass into energy. There’s no question that Meitner and Hahn both deserved the Nobel Prize. Hahn received it. Meitner did not.
The Nobel Committee records were eventually unsealed. Ruth Lewin Sime reviewed those record and, with her colleagues Elisabeth Crawford and Mark Walker, wrote in a 1997 article in the American Physical Society journal Physics Today, Sime wrote:
It appears that Lise Meitner did not share the 1944 prize because the structure of the Nobel committees was ill-suited to assess interdisciplinary work; because the members of the chemistry committee were unable or unwilling to judge her contribution fairly; and because during the war the Swedish scientists relied on their own limited expertise. Meitner’s exclusion from the chemistry award may well be summarized as a mixture of disciplinary bias, political obtuseness, ignorance, and haste.
WC, who has read Sime’s excellent biography of Meitner, thinks Ms. Sime is being too kind. The Chemistry Committee was unable to get past is blatant sexism.3
Since the Nobel Prizes were founded in 1901, women have won just 49 out of 923 prizes. About one in every 20. Confronted with their evident gender bias, the Nobel Committees have hemmed and hawed. And promised to do better. WC isn’t holding his breath. But WC will offer the Nobel Committee a chance to partially redeem itself:
What about Vera Rubin? Rubin discovered the anomalies in the way galaxies rotate that provided evidence for the existence of dark matter, one of the universe’s greatest scientific mysteries. This accomplishment has not been awarded a Nobel Prize, although many scientists (and nonscientists) say it deserved the honor. Including WC. Nobel prizes aren’t awarded posthumously. Rubin is 88 years old. There’s a strong sense of urgency. As science writer Rachel Feltman of The Washington Post tweeted, “Vera Rubin deserves a Nobel. She probably won’t get one in time.”
Go ahead, Nobel Foundation. Prove WC wrong.
- Some believe that the late Fred Hoyle was denied a Nobel Prize partly because he publicly criticized the omission of Burnell from the 1972 Physics Nobel Prize. ↩
- Before someone points out you have to alive to receive a Nobel Prize, that simply begs the question of why the Nobel Prize committee waited so long to recognize the DNA work. Its importance was obvious before 1958, when Franklin died. ↩
- You want more proof? Meitner’s name was submitted, also by Hahn, to the Nobel Prize committee more than ten times, but she was not accepted. ↩