Women physicists are certainly not in the majority. Despite being historically underrepresented in the sciences, and despite at times not getting the credit they deserve, women have been making contributions to various areas of scientific study for literally thousands of years. Many of these women have blazed trails in their respective fields. Take Marie Curie, for instance, whose research into separating radium from radioactive residues heralded a new age of understanding radioactivity and garnered two Nobel Prizes. Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered more than 2,400 of the variable stars known in the early part of the 20th century. She developed the "Cepheid variable period-luminosity" principal, which transformed our understanding of stellar magnitude, and which subsequent physicists such as Edward Hubble used as a basis for their work. Leavitt was only paid 30 cents a day for her efforts but had the distinction of being known among her colleagues as one of the best minds at the Harvard College Observatory [source: PBS].
Women's influence in the field of physics continues to grow at a steady pace. Who spearheaded the Tevatron particle accelerator? Who was the first woman to be a tenured theoretical physicist at MIT? Which woman actually stopped a beam of light in its tracks? Read on to discover who's making what spin in the world of this ever-advancing field.
5: Helen Thom Edwards
Besides being home to Bellevue Place, where Mary Todd Lincoln was institutionalized, do you know what Batavia, Ill., is famous for? One of the world's first and most powerful particle accelerators, the Tevatron, is located just east of the city at the Fermilab laboratories. Since 1983, it has been busy making subatomic particles move really fast. Inside the Tevatron, beams of protons and antiprotons are accelerated to 99.999954 percent of the speed of light around a circular tunnel that is 4 miles (6.4 kilometers) long [source: Fermilab]. When the beams collide, particle detectors sample the debris to find evidence of new or unknown particles and to study the structure of the tiniest bits of matter. The Tevatron also reproduces conditions akin to those of the early universe, giving us insight into the Big Bang and the beginnings of cosmic evolution.
One of the principal physicists responsible for the existence of the Tevatron is Helen Thom Edwards. Born in 1936, Edwards developed a keen interest in science from an early age. In 1957, she earned her B.A. at Cornell University, after which she continued her studies at the university, earning her master's and later her Ph.D. in Experimental Physics [source: Fermilab]. You might say she cultivated most of her expertise in the area of atom-smashing. After joining Fermilab, Edwards was instrumental in making the Fermilab 8 GeV Booster and the 400 GeV Main Accelerator operational. Of her many accomplishments, she is probably best known for efforts in the late 1970s to design the Tevatron. The technology used to build the Tevatron was the basis for later particle accelerators, including the Large Hadron Collider.
Helen Thom Edwards is also an author, having written several articles about her work on the Tevatron and particle physics. She has received great recognition for her work, including the 1985 USPAS Prize for Achievement in Particle Physics and Technology, the 1988 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the 1989 National Medal of Technology.
Next up, you'll read about a woman with quite a few significant "firsts" under her belt.
4: Shirley Ann Jackson
While Shirley Ann Jackson is a very accomplished physicist in her own right, she earns a spot on this list for the amazing work she has done to advance the position of women scientists, not to mention African-American women scientists. Let's take a look at some of her "firsts."
- She was the first African-American to receive a doctorate from MIT. She was also one of the first two African-American women to earn a physics Ph.D. from a U.S. university.
- In 1995, Jackson became the first African-American woman to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In fact, she was also the first African-American woman to serve on the commission in any capacity [source: National Women's Hall of Fame].
- She was the first African-American woman elected to the National Academy of Engineering [source: RPI].
- In 2007, Jackson was the first African-American woman to receive the esteemed Vannevar Bush award. This award is given to people who have made "significant contributions to the welfare of the Nation through public service activities in science, technology and public policy." The National Science Board also deemed her a "national treasure" [source: National Science Board].
- She was the first African-American woman president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to lead a top-50 national research university [source: RPI].
In 1998, Dr. Jackson was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame for her leadership role in advancing women in the field of science and technology [source: National Women's Hall of Fame]. And her work has been commended by two American presidents. In 1995, President Clinton named her Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NCR), and in 2009, President Obama appointed her to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology [source: RPI]. It's safe to say for all the mentioned accomplishments, plus the many contributions not included, Shirley Ann Jackson is truly a woman on the cutting edge of physics.
Can you guess who's in charge of the next big telescope? Find out on the next page!
3: Wendy L. Freeman
The Giant Megallan Telescope will be located in Chile's Atacama Desert, which is known as the driest place on the planet Earth.
Of her many accomplishments in the field of science, astrophysicist Wendy Freeman is best known for stargazing. Her early work with Cepheids, which are bright stars that brighten and dim repeatedly, gave her ample credentials to take a leadership role in the Hubble Space Telescope Key Project on the Extragalactic Distance Scale, which was designed to measure the rate of expansion of the universe using the Hubble Constant. This work put her on the path to heading up a team of scientists for the ongoing Carnegie Supernova Project. This project aims to refine the calculations of the Hubble Constant, decreasing its uncertainty from 10 percent to 3 percent [source: Carnegie Institution for Science].
In her spare time, Freeman is leading the charge into the 21st century. She is spearheading the construction of the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT). Located at Carnegie's Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, this colossal telescope will have a resolving power 10 times more potent than that of the Hubble Space Telescope, with the ability to take sharper, clearer pictures [source: GMT]. The GMT is set to revolutionize how we interact with distant galaxies.
Wendy Freeman has earned incredible recognition for her hard work over the course of her career. In 1987, she became the first woman to become a permanent member of the staff at the Observatories of the Carnegie Institution. The honors she's received include the 2009 Cosmology Prize, the 2002 American Philosophical Society's Magellanic Premium Award and the 2000 Cosmos Club Foundations John P. McGovern Award in Science [source: Carnegie Institution for Science].
Next, we'll meet a female physicist with a new meaning for the word "stoplight."
2: Lene Vestergaard Hau
Isn't it physically impossible to halt the speed of light? Until recently, most people thought so. In 2001, Danish physicist Lene Vestergaard Hau and her team of researchers from Harvard did just that. Her project began in the late 1990s with an interest in seeing if light could be slowed down under particular conditions. In the first series of experiments, she and her team accomplished the unthinkable -- they managed to slow light, which normally moves about 186,000 miles per second (almost 300,000 kilometers per second) in a vacuum, down to 38 miles per hour (about 61 kilometers per hour) [source: Barbier, Wiley]. Why stop there? Several years and a few blown-up lasers later, Hau announced that she and her researchers could do better. They slowed light to 15 miles per hour (about 24 kilometers per hour) by having it stream through a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC) [source: Biba]. BEC is truly a strange phenomenon. When atoms have been exposed to extremely cold temperatures, they slow down. Rather than bouncing off one another, the atoms begin to form layers and eventually congeal into one large lump. In other words, they lose their ability to operate independently. Rather than existing as separate entities, they are forced to work together, sort of like The Borg from "Star Trek."
Always game for a challenge, Hau figured that she could use BEC to do what was considered preposterous. Armed with a coupling laser, she shot a pulse of light through a field of BEC. Instead of leaving the laser on, she quickly flipped it off and watched an astonishing event unfold in front of her eyes: The light pulse disappeared. However, the imprint of the pulse -- its characteristics -- remained. This imprint turned out to be critical for what followed. When Hau and her researchers flipped the coupling laser back on, it caused a jolt. In other words, it gave the original pulse a jump-start. The light that emerged was exactly the same as the light that first went into the BEC. It held the same shape, phase and amplitude information [source: Holloway]. The results of the experiment proved that it is indeed possible to stop light. Hau's phenomenal discovery earned her a coveted "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to the tune of $500,000 [source: MacArthur].
Next up: Let's enter the fifth dimension.
1: Lisa Randall
Lisa Randall has made quite a name for herself as a theoretical physicist. As an academic, she was the first woman to be tenured in the physics department at Princeton University, and the first woman theoretical physicist to be tenured at Harvard [source: Lakhanpal]. Her work revolves around particle physics, string theory and cosmology. In other words, she studies the properties and interactions of matter. Much of her research focuses on dimensions of space, namely the hidden ones. It's an interesting concept that blends the scientific with the philosophical. Other renowned physicists such as Stephen Hawking have put forth the idea that our universe has an infinite number of realities. Dr. Randall takes a different angle, examining what she refers to as "warped" geometries of the universe. Her model, which she developed with physicist Raman Sundrum, presents one theory on why gravitational forces are so weak when compared to other forces, like the electromagnetic force or the strong nuclear force. The culprit is a hidden dimension. This groundbreaking work hypothesizes that we live in a world with one infinite dimension. She believes there is a possibility that our reality is a 3D depression housed within a "higher-dimensional universe." In essence, we get the remnants of gravitational forces from a stronger fifth dimension [source: Creativity Foundation].
Along with her knack for physics, Lisa Randall also has artistic talents. She collaborated with composer Hèctor Perra to write a libretto entitled "Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Planes." With only a two-person cast -- a baritone and a soprano -- the work combines video projections and experimental music that represents, for example, warped space-time. The opera explores the notions of dimensions, both the known and the unknown [source: Cline]. Randall's published works include "Warped Passages: Unraveling the Universe's Hidden Dimensions" which made the New York Times list of 100 notable books of 2005. In 2007, she was included in Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People" [source: Harvard University].
For lots more information on the mysteries of the universe and the people who solve them, click over to the next page.
Lots More Information
- APS Physics. "Helen Thom Edwards." 2011. (July 5, 2011) http://www.aps.org/programs/honors/prizes/prizerecipient.cfm?last_nm=Edwards&first_nm=Helen&year=2003
- Barbier, Beth. "NASA's Cosmicopia -- Ask Us -- General Physics: Speed of Light." NASA. May 2000. (July 6, 2011) http://helios.gsfc.nasa.gov/qa_gp_sl.html
- Biba, Erin. "Harvard Physicist Plays Magician With Light." Wired. Oct. 23, 2007. (June 29, 2011) http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/15-11/st_alphageek
- Browne, Malcolm. W. "Scientist at Work: Lene Vestergaard Hau; She Puts the Brakes on Light." New York Times. March 30, 1999. (June 29, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/1999/03/30/science/scientist-at-work-lene-vestergaard-hau-she-puts-the-brakes-on-light.html
- Carnegie Institution for Science. "Wendy Freeman." (June 29, 2011) http://obs.carnegiescience.edu/research/wfreedman/
- Cline, Elizabeth. "Opera in the 5th Dimension." Seed Magazine. Aug. 10, 2009. (June 29, 2011) http://seedmagazine.com/content/article/opera_in_the_fifth_dimension/
- Creativity Foundation. "2009 Laureate Foundation Winner Lisa Randall." (June 29, 2011) http://creativity-found.org/laureate-prize/archive/lisa-randall/
- Fermilab. "Accelerator - Fermilab's Tevatron." U.S. Department of Energy. Dec. 15, 2010. (June 29, 2011) http://www.fnal.gov/pub/science/accelerator/
- Giant Magellan Telescope. (June 29, 2011) http://www.gmto.org/
- Glanz, James. "Scientists Bring Light to Full Stop, Hold It, Then Send it On Its Way." New York Times. Jan. 18, 2001. (June 20, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2001/01/18/us/scientists-bring-light-to-full-stop-hold-it-then-send-it-on-its-way.html
- Harvard University. "Lisa Randall." May 10, 2011. (June 29, 2011) http://www.physics.harvard.edu/people/facpages/randall.html
- Holloway, Marguerite. "What Vision in the Dark of Light." Scientific American. Aug. 19, 2007. (June 29, 2011) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=what-visions-in-the-dark
- Lakhanpal, Nitsch. "Physicist Appointed To National Committee." The Harvard Crimson. Feb. 4, 2011. (July 6, 2011) http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2011/2/4/science-randall-national-medal/
- National Academy of Sciences. "InterViews: Wendy L. Freedman." Oct. 19, 2004. (June 29, 2011) http://www.nasonline.org/site/PageServer?pagename=INTERVIEWS_Wendy_Freedman
- PBS. "People and Discoveries: Henrietta Leavitt." (June 29, 2011) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/baleav.html
- RPI. "Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D." Dec. 17, 2010. (June 29, 2011) http://rpi.edu/president/profile.html
- Tesser, Neil. "Lives of Music and Physics, Lovingly Bound." New York Times. Nov. 25, 2010. (June 29, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/26/us/26cncfamily.html
- Wiley, John, P. Jr. "Putting the Brakes on Light." Smithsonian. June 1999. (June 29, 2011) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/phenom_jun99.html