Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Celebrating women in particle physics

One of yesterday's women in physics: Maria Fidecaro chats with Alec Merrison and
Alan Wetherell at the Nuclear Physics
Research Laboratory of the University of Liverpool, 1955 (courtesy of CERN)

Okay, so this is a bit old, but I haven’t posted in over a year so it could be a lot older. About this time last month, CERN held a special event for International Women’s Day. Each of the five control rooms, for the accelerator and the four experiments, were staffed with as many women as possible for March 8th 2010.

Pauline Gagnon of ATLAS organized the event. In 2008, she compiled some statistics on the status of women in the collaboration from ATLAS’s authors list. When she first showed me the presentation slides, I was expecting the proportions not to be particularly near 50/50, but the result still surprised me: Women made up just 15.6 per cent of the collaboration.

At first glance, it may not seem like much to celebrate about. But she also examined how age factored into the proportion of women in ATLAS, and found encouraging news: restricting the statistics to people under 50 years of age, women make up 21 per cent of ATLAS. Women are on the rise.

Looking back over history gives a new perspective. International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911. Coincidentally, this is the same year the Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize – making her the first double-Laureate. Nevertheless, that same year, the French Academy of Sciences refused to make her a member.

Thinking about such powerful prejudices, it’s sort of amazing that not quite a hundred years later, I was able to take it for granted that my professors and peers wouldn’t factor my gender into my ability to understand of physics (and trust me, I am no Madame Curie). Perhaps that’s why this quote from Laura Jeanty’s Women’s Day video interview resonated with me: “I’ve felt nothing but encouragement at CERN and the American universities at which I studied from my peers and from my supervisors.”

Speaking with female physicists nearer to my parents’ age, it seems that the atmosphere has changed since they were students. Nowadays, even the glass ceiling is becoming a memory. The lab director at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center is a woman, Persis Drell. Fabiola Gianotti has been the elected Spokesperson of ATLAS since last spring.

For CERN (and Fermilab, as they joined the celebration via videoconference), March 8th, 2010 was about celebrating achievements and sending a message to young women: “We’re particle physicists, and this future is open to you, too.”

In the CMS control room (courtesy of Maximilien Brice)

In the ALICE control room (courtesy of Maximilien Brice)

In the LHCb control room (courtesy of Mike Struik)

In the CERN Control Center (courtesy of Maximilien Brice)

In the ATLAS control room, Pauline Gagnon on left (courtesy of Claudia Marcelloni)

More photos available on CERN's database.

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