How's This Physics Theory? Multiply the Number of Women and Get Innovation

By Amy-Willard Cross

Physics is the gateway to the 21st century. Such was the consensus at what was probably the only International Women’s Day event centered around physics.  

Perimeter Institute — a leading center for scientific research, training, and educational outreach in foundational theoretical physics — is trying to make sure more women are among the next leaders in research and innovation. It recently began The Emmy Noether Fellowship, named after Emmy Noether, whom Einstein called the greatest woman mathematician.

Women physicists in their early careers are granted six months to do research away from the travails of teaching and administrative duties. The fellowship even supplies funds for childcare. It is intended to be a home and unique place for women to advance in theoretical physics. And it’s working: the program has been inundated with nominations. There will be five fellows next year, and perhaps 10 after that.

"The way to get and keep more people in science is to make places and opportunities," said Neil Turok, who is the Director of the Institute that was launched and partly funded by Mike Lazaridis, inventor of the Blackberry.

Decrying the "waste for the planet not to encourage women and other disadvantaged groups," Turok told the crowd that physics "is about changing the world and helping humanity." And he sees interest emerging in women scientists.

Turok added, "The only way to progress the role of women is to push all the time and to take risks on young women. I have to push my faculty to do that more, and I look forward to be pressured by you to do more."

And then he let the physicists speak for themselves.

SCIENCE — STORIES REVISITED: Natalia Toro

Natalia Toro’s work has been incorporated into techniques used at the Large Hadron Collider. Toro thinks novelist Alice Munroe captured the excitement of science in describing fiction: "A story is not like a road, but more like a house, you can go back again and again…it always contains more than you saw…" Same with science. Calling physics a living field, Natalia feels it’s about telling stories and expanding them. "The stories aren’t always believable like quantum. It’s all very much a work in progress. And it’s invigorating because we don’t know where it’s going to lead us." She continues even without a storyboard or plot line.

STORIES OF SCIENTISTS: Olga Michalopoulos

Olga Michalopoulos says it out loud: she loves physics and has been teaching the subject for over 30 years. Calling it her passion, Michalopoulos is inspired by stories about obscure female physicists. People like Cecilia Payne, who wasn’t allowed an astrophysics degree from Harvard despite having done the studies, and whose contributions took years to be appreciated. "When you read about women like this, you get inspired to believe in yourself even more." Michalopoulos admits she loves talking to kids about the universe and law of physics, and hopes to be a role model. "If I can get one girl to go on and study, I’ll be happy. If they think they can’t do it, they’ll never know."

CREATING NEW STORIES OF SCIENTISTS: Alex Terrano

After the Big Bang, the universe began and regular people now know that a physicist looks like Sheldon or Leonard. But they also look like Natalia, Olga, and Alex, who says, "I want to change the idea that physics is not for normal people. It can be. People don’t know what physics is or don’t know what it means." Indeed, she didn’t as a child. Teachers pushed her to engineering, which seemed more practical. In college, Terrano remembers her delight in finally getting to meet people who shared the same love for math and physics.

"There may be few women physicists because we don’t expect them," says Terrano. She related how in Iran, there are actually more women than men in physics. 

Maybe nobody told them they couldn’t have that part of the future.

[this story was updated with the correct spelling of Neil Turok's name, the proper name of the Cern collider, and to name the Institute's founder.]

Photo Illustration: Dalila-Johari Paul
Main Photo: © Serg Nvns - Fotolia.com