Serendipity: Nobel stories

Two years ago Jocelyn Bell Burnell was awarded a Special Breakthrough Prize. The Breakthrough is a young private prize that established itself in a short time (largely due to handing out bunches of 3 million dollars). Many found this to be kind of a moral compensation for the Nobel Prize, since Bell was involved in a quite controversial Physics Nobel decision. Probably one of the top controversial ones. Okay, just drop “probably one of” and change “ones” to singular.
In 1967 Bell discovered the existence of pulsars while she was still a PhD student. As it was a defining discovery in 20th-century astrophysics, seven years later a Nobel prize was given for it…
…To Bell’s PhD adviser.
One might argue that it is uncommon for a student to receive a prestigious award in place of their team leader, but I can already think of three such times (Curie, de Broglie, ‘t Hooft and I am certainly missing more). Others might say that the case was unfair to both students and women.

Ironically, the other half for that same year’s Prize was awarded to Martin Ryle, who advanced the field of radio astronomy – by refining instruments previously built by the first person who used radio waves in astronomy: Ruby Payne-Scott, a physicist who developed radar for Australia’s defense in WWII and then lost her position at a public lab because she got married.

Talking about infamous Nobel omissions one can’t help thinking of nuclear fission. Nuclear fission has shaped recent human history and is practically the synonym of extreme technological advancement, right? So you would expect that the persons who first made it happen might receive a Nobel. Only that not all of them did.
For decades, Lise Meitner was the head of the lab that brought about nuclear fission. In 1938, as the work by her, Otto Hahn and colleagues was about to culminate, Meitner realized that she’d better flee Germany, which she did within a two-hour window. Then through a secret letter exchange with Hahn she was the first to realize that the lab had achieved fission and publish the theory behind it. In 1945 Hahn received the Nobel (for chemistry) – alone.

When talking about women overlooked for the prestigious prize two more are customarily mentioned, although in context less obvious than for Bell and Meitner. One is Vera Rubin, the discoverer of the presence of dark matter in galaxies (previously hypothesized by Frank Zwicky). It could be said however that nobody knows for sure yet if dark matter is really made of matter, if it is gravity behaving weirdly, or something else, so a Nobel might have been risqué.

And the second is Emmy Noether, considered the greatest female mathematician in, so far, ever. In addition to her math work, “Noether’s theorem” underlies the foundations of the whole of particle physics, not to put it too dramatically. It can be argued that the extent of its importance wasn’t fully realized during her lifetime, but this is barely so. In any case it is noteworthy that she came up with it in 1915, during the interval of sixteen years that she worked at German universities for free because they weren’t allowed to hire female staff. She often taught classes as well, initially under the pretext of assisting the renowned mathematician David Hilbert – who defended hiring her by stating “gender is not an argument against her admission; this is a university, not a bathhouse”.

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