Tag Archives: Marie Curie

Donna Strickland, first female Nobel Prize winner in 55 years and one of only three (so far) in history

It’s been quite the fascinating week in the world of physics culminating with Donna Strickland’s shiny new Nobel Prize in physics.

For my purposes, this week in physics started on Friday, September 28, 2018 with Allesanndro Strumia’s presentation at CERN’s (European Particle Physics Laboratory) “1st workshop on high energy theory and gender” where he claimed and proved ‘scientifically’ that physics has become “sexist against men.” I’ll get back to Strumia in a moment but, first, let’s celebrate Donna Strickland and her achievements.

Only three women, including Strickland, in the history (117 years) of the Nobel Prize for Physics have won it, Marie Curie in 1903, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963, and, now, Strickland in 2018.

The University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) had this to say in an October 2, 2018 news release,

Donna Strickland wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Dr. Donna Strickland

Donna Strickland, a University of Waterloo professor who helped revolutionize laser physics, has been named a winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.

Strickland, an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, shares half the $1.4 million prize with French laser physicist Gérard Mourou. The other half was awarded to U.S. physicist Arthur Ashkin.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated that Mourou and Strickland paved the way toward the shortest and most intense laser pulses created by mankind. Their revolutionary article was published in 1985 and was the foundation of Strickland’s doctoral thesis.

Strickand conducted her Nobel-winning research while a PhD student under Mourou in 1989 at the University of Rochester in New York. The team’s research has a number of applications in industry and medicine.

It was great to have had the opportunity to work with one of the pioneers of ultrafast lasers, Gerard Mourou,” said Strickland. “It was a small community back then. It was a new, burgeoning field. I got to be part of that. It was very exciting.”

A Nobel committee member said billions of people make daily use of laser printers and optical scanners and millions undergo laser surgery.

“This is a tremendous day for Professor Strickland and needless to say a tremendous day for the University of Waterloo,” said Feridun Hamdullahpur, president and vice-chancellor of the University of Waterloo. “This is Waterloo’s first Nobel laureate and the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics in 55 years.”

During an interview, Strickland told the Globe and Mail [national newspaper]: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate.”

Charmaine Dean, vice-president research at the University of Waterloo said: “Donna Strickland exemplifies research excellence at Waterloo. Her groundbreaking work is a testament to the importance of fundamental research as it has established the foundation for laser-based technologies that we see today from micromachining to laser eye surgery.”

An October 2, 2018 news item on Nanowerk focuses on the three winners,

Arthur Ashkin, an American physicist has been awarded half the prize for his invention of optical tweezers and their application to biological systems. His amazing tool has helped to reach the old dream of grabing [sic] particles, atoms, viruses and other living cells. The optical tweezers work with the radiation pressure of light to hold and move tiny object and are widely used to study the machinery of life.

French physicist Gérard Mourou and Canadian physicist Donna Strickland share the other half for their method of generating ultra-short and very intense optical pulses. Ultra-sharp laser beams have made possible to cut or drill holes in various materials extremely precisely – even in living matter. The technique this duo pioneered is called chirped pulse amplification or CPA and it has led to corrective eye surgeries for millions of people.

An Oct. 2, 2018 article by Marina Koren for The Atlantic is my favourite of the ones focusing on Strickland. One of Koren’s major focal points is Strickland’s new Wikipedia page (Note: Links have been removed),

It was about five in the morning in Ontario, Canada, when Donna Strickland’s phone rang. The Nobel Prize committee was on the line in Stockholm, calling to tell her she had won the prize in physics.

“We wondered if it was a prank,” Strickland said Tuesday [October 2 ,2018], in an interview with a Nobel official after the call. She had been asleep when the call arrived. “But then I knew it was the right day, and it would have been a cruel prank.”

Lasers, focused beams of light particles, were invented in the 1960s. Scientists immediately started tinkering with them, looking for ways to harness and manipulate these powerful devices.

Strickland and [Gérard] Mourou] found a way to stretch and compress lasers to produce short, intense pulses that are now used, among other things, in delicate surgeries to fix vision problems. [Arthur] Ashkin figured out a way to maneuver laser light so that it could push small particles toward the center of the beam, hold them in place, and even move them around. This technique became the delightfully named “optical tweezer.” It allowed Ashkin to use the power of light to capture and hold living bacteria and viruses without harming the organisms.

Unlike her fellow winners, Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page at the time of the announcement. A Wikipedia user tried to set up a page in May, but it was denied by a moderator with the message: “This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article.” Strickland, it was determined, had not received enough dedicated coverage elsewhere on the internet to warrant a page.

On Tuesday, a newly created page flooded with edits: “Added in her title.” “Add Nobel-winning paper.” “Added names of other women Nobelists [sic] in physics.”

The construction of the Wikipedia page feels like a metaphor for a historic award process that has long been criticized for neglecting women in its selection, and for the shortage of women’s stories in the sciences at large. To scroll through the “history” tab of Strickland’s page, where all edits are recorded and tracked, is to witness in real time the recognition of a scientist whose story likely deserved attention long before the Nobel Prize committee called.

Strickland’s historic win comes a day after CERN, the European organization that operates the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, suspended a senior scientist for saying that physics was “invented and built by men.” Alessandro Strumia, a professor at the University of Pisa, made the statement during a recent speech at a seminar on gender issues in physics that was attended by mostly female physicists. Strumia said “men prefer working with things and women prefer working with people,” and that between men and women there is a “difference even in children before any social influence.” His remarks were widely circulated online and prompted fierce backlash.

The remarks don’t faze Strickland, who very publicly proved them wrong on Tuesday. In an interview with the BBC on Tuesday, she called Strumia’s claims “silly.”

For anyone curious about the Strumia situation, there’s an October 2, 2018 CBC Radio (As It Happens) online news article. Note: Links have been removed,

Not only was Alessandro Strumia being offensive when he said that physics “was invented and built by men” — he was also wrong, says physicist Jess Wade.

“Actually, women have contributed hugely to physics throughout the whole of history, but for an incredibly long time we haven’t documented or told those stories,” Wade told As It Happens host Carol Off.

And she would know. The Imperial College London research associate has made it her mission to write hundreds of Wikipedia entries about women in science and engineering.

Wade was in the room on Friday when Strumia, a physicist at Pisa University, made the inflammatory remarks during a gender workshop in Geneva, organized by the European nuclear research centre CERN.

CERN cut ties with Strumia after the BBC reported the content of his presentation.

This article includes some of the slides in Strumia’s now infamous presentation.

Tommaso Dorigo in an October 1, 2018 posting on the Science 2.0 blog offers another analysis,

The world of particle physics is in turmoil because of a presentation by Alessandro Strumia, an Italian phenomenologist, at CERN’s “1st workshop on high energy theory and gender”, and its aftermath.

By now the story has been echoed by many major newscasters around the world, and discussed in public and private forums, blogs, twitter feeds. I wanted to stay away from it here, mainly because it is a sensitive issue and the situation is still evolving, but after all, why not offer to you my personal pitch on the matter? Strumia, by the way, has been an occasional commenter to this blog – you can find some of his comments signed as “AS” in threads of past articles. Usually he makes good points here, as long as physics is the subject.

Anyway, first of all let me give you a quick recall of the events. The three-day workshop, which took place on September 26-28, was meant to”focus on recent developments in theoretical high-energy physics and cosmology, and discuss issues of gender and equal opportunities in the field“; it followed three previous events which combined string theory and gender issues. Strumia’s presentation was titled “Experimental tests of a new global symmetry“, a physicist’s way of describing the issue of man-woman equality. It is important to note that the talk was not an invited one – its author had asked the organizers for a slot as he said he would be talking of bibliometrics, and indeed his contribution was listed in the agenda of September 28 with the innocuous title “Bibliometrics data about gender issues in fundamental theory“.

Strumia’s slides contain a collection of half-baked claims, coming from his analysis of InSpire data from citations and authorship of articles in theoretical physics. I consider his talk offensive on many levels. It starts by casting the woman discrimination issue in scientific academia as a test of hypothesis of whether the “man-woman” symmetry is explicitly broken (i.e. there is no symmetry) or spontaneously broken (by a difference of treatment) – something that could even raise a smile in a geeky physicist; but the fun ends there.

Dorigo offers a detailed ‘takedown’ of Strumia’s assertions. I found the post intriguing for the insight it offers into physics. Never in a million years would I have thought this title, “Experimental tests of a new global symmetry,” would indicate a discussion on gender balance in the field of physics.

As I said in the opening, it has been quite the week in physics. On a final note, Brava to Doctor Donna Strickland!

Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility

There’s a look you see in people’s eyes when you say ‘science’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’. It’s not happiness or excitement.

At some point in our schooling, the sciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering became the exclusive property of those who were deemed to be talented in those areas and the rest of us weren’t necessarily treated well by the teachers or ‘talented’ fellow students.  Some people are so wounded by the experience they lose any interest or curiosity they might once have had and refuse to engage at all.

The odd thing is that most of us have more experience with science, engineering, and mathematics than we commonly believe.

There are very few people today compared to thirty years ago who don’t more or less understand how a computer operates. Car mechanics typically have to repair very sophisticated mechanical and electronic systems featuring computers and wireless technology. Hairdressers need to know a lot about chemicals and how hair and skin might react to them.  And, on it goes.

A sense of superiority seems to be a feature of human nature as if somehow we need to be better than someone else. That sense of superiority is found in many areas, as well as, within the sciences and mathematics and engineering and technology communities. Chemists are superior to engineers who are superior to technologists and all of them are superior to social scientists who return the favour and look down on scientists who they view as having low moral character and having, undeservedly, lots of money (I was in a session at a 2007 conference where that was the gist of the presentation and comments).

In this somewhat balkanized atmosphere it’s good to see people trying to establish a discussion about science, technology, mathematics, and engineering that doesn’t require an advanced degree or discount the comments of an amateur.

There’s a delightful Aug. 5, 2015 posting by John Hinton for the Guardian science blogs that espouses the joy of a ‘scientist pretender’,

I adored science at school. But my coursework assignments bewildered my teachers. Details of experimentations were often accompanied by personal anecdotes and quotes from obscure song lyrics. Irrelevant clip-art was rife. So when I had to pick a path through the labyrinth of life, i.e. select my A-levels, science fell away in favour of subjects where personal anecdoture and obscure lyricalism are paramount.

Despite my enforced rebuttal of science as a professional pursuit, it always retained a very special place in both my brain and bookshelf. Deep down, I wanted to be a scientist. And if you pretend for long enough (it has been suggested by non-scientists), eventually you become the thing you’re pretending to be.

So six or seven years ago, I started pretending to be a scientist. Specifically, I started pretending to be Charles Darwin in my first science-theatre show, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES … And people were fooled – they came from far and wide to hear me speak, invited me to Australia and Norway and Croatia and Hemel Hempstead. …

Hinton has also pretended to Einstein but I find his latest pretence the most interesting,

Now it’s not easy, we’re told by lots and lots of people, to recruit women into the sciences – and it’s rendered even harder by off-hand remarks made by Nobel laureates. So I started wondering whether I could pull off the ruse of the century and pretend to be a woman scientist, to see if that’d help matters at all.

The scientist I chose was Marie Curie. Like the other two I’d pretended to be, she is the linchpin to a whole branch of science (evolution, relativity and radioactivity respectively). Like the other two, her discoveries have been used both for good (conservation, GPS, radiotherapy) and bad (eugenics, nuclear bombs, radium quackery). And like the other two, I don’t look very much like her.

I’ve already pretended to be Marie Curie in Brighton, where the reception was very positive, and I shall shortly be pretending to be Marie Curie in Edinburgh. And in a few decades’ time, we’ll see whether my efforts have led to a redress of the gender bias (the scientific basis I’ll use to judge my eventual success shall be strictly cum hoc ergo propter hoc, if you know what I mean).

Hinton will be at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so if you should happen to be in the vicinity,

The Element in the Room: a radioactive muscial comedy about the death and life of Marie Curie runs at Edinburgh Fringe’s Pleasance Courtyard, 5-31 August 2015 at 3.30pm, alongside the full trilogy playing in rep.

More information here.

While this next bit concerns women and science, it still pertains to the main theme of this posting which is that anyone can participate in science/mathematics/technology/engineering, including comedians. David Bruggeman in an Aug. 4, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog reveals information about a very interesting new video series (Note: Links have been removed),

Last fall [2014] Megan Amram released Science…For Her!, a science textbook written as though by a women’s magazine writer who knows little about science.

If you couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing, but still want to dive in, Amram has a solution.  She has partnered with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on a web series, Experimenting with Megan Amram.  (Poehler’s website has a great deal of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – content worth exploring, not just this series.)

I find it inspiring that comedy writers want to talk about science. You can find Experimenting with Meg Amram here. I understand from David’s posting that this is comedy with some science and the first episode features an interview with Dr. Beverly McKeon, associate director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

Meg Amram and her book were featured here in a May 25, 2014 posting about the then upcoming book. For anyone unfamiliar with Meg Amram and Amy Poehler you can check out the Internet Movie DataBase (imdb.com) for their various television and movie credits.

Radiance, scientists, communication and improvisation

Marie Curie’s letters are radioactive. I discovered that fact when reading David Bruggeman’s Nov. 5, 2011,posting (on his Pasco Phronesis blog),

As part of his appearance on Thursday night’s edition of The Late Late Show to promote Tower Heist (video not yet available at the usual places), Alan Alda noted that his play, Radiance: The Passion of Marie Curie, is premiering in Los Angeles.  In previews as of November 1st, the play’s official opening is next Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.  Alda has written before, but this is his first effort for the stage.  …

… This play has percolated with him for years, first as a reading of her letters.  Their persistent radioactivity forced him to switch to Einstein and defer the work with Marie Curie until now.

The play was given a public reading at the World Science Festival in New York, June 2011. From the May 9, 2011 article by Patricia Cohen for the New York Times,

Opening night of the World Science Festival in New York is going to feature a more glittering lineup of stars than most Broadway shows. Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Allison Janney, Liev Schreiber, David Morse and Bill Camp are among the actors coming together on June 1 at Alice Tully Hall to participate in a reading of a new play written by Alan Alda about the scientist Marie Curie.

Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in 1902 – for the theory of radioactivity that she developed with her husband, Pierre –  and the first person to receive the award twice. She was awarded her second Nobel in chemistry in 1911 for her discovery of two elements, radium and polonium. There have been several renditions of Curie’s life on stage, television and film, including the 1943 drama starring Greer Garson. Without giving too much of the plot away, Mr. Alda said his play focuses on the period between her first Nobel Prize and her second nine years later. The Nobel committee did not originally want to include Curie in the award and only backed down after pressure from her husband. “But they wouldn’t let her get up and accept the award,” Mr. Alda said. “She had to sit in the audience.” In the intervening years, Pierre Curie died and Marie had to run a gauntlet of setbacks and obstacles, but by 1911, Mr. Alda said, “her work is finally recognized, and she takes full credit for it, even though by now she’s weakened by radiation poisoning.”

“I think she had a kind of cognitive dissonance about it,” Mr. Alda said of the damaging fallout from her experiments. “She didn’t want to believe it was sickening her,” he added. “It’s part of the heroism of science itself. We as a species are just so interested in understanding things that might be dangerous to mess with, but nothing stops us.”

Radiance is currently playing at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and features Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad, a U. S. television series) as Marie Curie and John de Lancie (probably best known at Q in the U. S. television series, Star Trek: The Next Generation) as Pierre Curie. Ticket buying information and details about the L. A. production can be found here.

Alan Alda has a longstanding interest in science and science communication as can be seen in a National Science Foundation video, which I found on Ed Darrell’s blog, Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (MFB). First here’s a little About MFB,

Of all the bathtubs in all the bathrooms in the world, and I had to pick Millard Fillmore’s!

Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub started as my way of learning about making blogs work, for my hope to integrate blog usage into the classroom.

This blog focuses on history education, with meanders into all of the social studies: Economics, history, geography, law, political science, and government (have I left something unmentioned? It’s in there). Debunking false, bad, bogus and voodoo history occupied me from at least junior high school; the story of Millard Fillmore’s bathtub, the hoax perpetrated by H. L. Mencken and the inability of historians to straighten out the issue in 90 years, seemed a good jumping off point.

My hope is to help students, their learning partners (especially parents), teachers and administrators make history sing for the students — and other social studies, too.

I don’t usually embed videos that run for over five minutes and this one runs for over 25 minutes but I thought it exceptionally interesting as Alda discusses, scientists, the sciences, and communicating with other human beings at a US National Science Foundation event. Here’s the video I found on MFB (March 28, 2011 post),

Finger puppet show for Month at the Museum 2 submission

Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry asked for submissions to their Month at the Museum experience where some lucky person (for the second year in a row) gets to live in the museum for one month approximately 24×7. The winner gets to document the experience via video, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

A video showcasing creativity in 60 secs.,  an essay (500 words or less) explaining why you want to do spend a month at the museum, a multi-page application, and two pictures were required. Here’s the video portion of my submission (Converstation with Frida Kahlo, Marie Curie, and Richard Feynman),

You can find out more about the Month at the Museum 2; Science never sleeps project here. Note The deadline for submissions has passed.