Since 1901, once the Nobel Prize in Physics was first awarded, it’s been given almost exclusively after year. Girls had won the award just twice.
That changed this week, when the number rose to three. A Canadian who is an associate professor of physics at the University of Waterloo, donna Strickland, obtained the prize for her work on high-intensity laser pulses on Tuesday.
Dr. Strickland, 59, shared the award with the French physicist Gérard Mourou, 74, together with whom she was working as a graduate student when they released a groundbreaking scientific paper at 1985; and Arthur Ashkin, 96, an American scientist who pioneered a means of using light to control physical objects.
Dr. Ashkin will receive half of their monetary prize, worth about $1 million. Dr. Mourou and Dr. Strickland will divide the remainder.
[On Wednesday, a girl was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the fifth time in history.]
In a meeting with NobelPrize.org, the official site of the prize, Dr. Strickland said that when she first learned she had won, she wondered if it may be a prank. “It was just a fun thing to do, and so I liked putting many hours into it,” she explained of her work with short-pulse lasers over 30 years back.
At the time, scientists were attempting to figure out without destroying the amplifiers how to Boost high-energy laser pulses. Dr. Strickland suggested extending out the blockages in time, amplifying them and then squeezing them to the desired level of intensity.
Her work with Dr. Mourou”paved the way in the most intense laser pulses created by humanity,” according to NobelPrize.org.
Their method, known as pulse amplification, has allowed for several applications and allowed, such as Lasik eye surgery. Some physicists think it can one day be used to accelerate subatomic particles, just like the Large Hadron Collider.
A self-described “laser jock,” Dr. Strickland was born in Guelph, Ontario, in 1959. Today she runs a lab for students at Waterloo called the Ultrafast Laser Group, where one of her favourite activities would be to create a complete colour spectrum of white light by a narrow bandwidth of wavelengths.
But her work did not find widespread public attention before she won the Nobel. In fact, Wikipedia refused a draft page about her in May, stating that she had not fulfilled”notability guidelines” (She now has a comprehensive Wikipedia page. )
Dr. Strickland said that her job depended in part on the work of the 2 girls who won the Nobel Prize in Physics before her.
Marie Curie was the first girl to win the prize in 1903, for the discovery of radioactivity.
But for 54 years after that, just men won the Nobel Prize in Physics. And just a couple of girls won the prize in either of the other two scientific classes: chemistry and physiology or medicine. The nine people that won Nobel Prizes in all three of the classes that are scientific were men in Western countries last year.
The Nobel Prizes have come under criticism in recent decades for the lack of feminine laureates across all categories.
While women are underrepresented in fields like technology and science, the disparities in physics appear to be particularly conspicuous, said the manager of the Statistical Research Center at the American Institute of Physics, Rachel Ivie.
She mentioned issues that have made it difficult for women to advance their careers, mentioning maternity leave, which may take girls from the workplace for years or even months at a time, as an illustration.
But Dr. Ivie added that there appeared to be cultural reasons for the disparities, too. That may explain why the change has been slow in physics although women are represented in the specialty.
“It hasn’t really caught up yet to the other fields,” she said. “And I think a lot of that is the cultural perception that this can be a man’s science, for whatever reason.”