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Women who missed out on Nobel prizes

I wrote the following blog for our astronomy club’s monthly newsletter.

The season of Nobel prizes is coming soon, in a week or so. It has been more than a century of Nobel prizes for the highest human achievements in the field of Sciences,Literature, Economics and Peace. Some controversies and some supposed misses have occurred in the past. I would like to mention three such cases involving women.

Recently, Anthony Hewish died. He won a Nobel prize in physics in 1974 along with Martin Ryle for the discovery of Pulsars, which are now known as spinning neutron stars. This discovery was made using a Radio telescope. The Radio astronomy group in Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was headed by Martin Ryle. Here Hewish was working with a graduate student Jocelyn Bell. In 1967, it was Bell who discovered a pattern in the data from the radio telescope. She painstakingly looked at a lot of data and firmly established that the data was all coming from an unknown type of astronomical object, a new source of radio signals.

Subsequent discoveries revealed that some massive stars at the end of their lives turn into neutron stars which are very dense objects. Such spinning objects emit radio waves which is what Bell discovered. When time came for awarding a Nobel prize for this discovery, Ryle and Hewish won, leaving Bell out. The Nobel committee never explains their decisions. Fred Hoyle, the famous physicist who came up with the Steady state theory of the Universe, criticized the Nobel committee about the decision to leave Bell out. Was it because she was just a Phd student at the time of discovery ? Was it because of gender inequality ?

Hoyle himself got left out later. Other than steady state theory which he admitted was wrong after the evidence for cosmic background radiation was firmly established and the Big bang theory gained prominence, he did pioneering work for nucleosynthesis which explained how stars including our sun generate energy through nuclear fusion reactions. And how most of the elements in our Universe are formed in the stars. When time came for the awarding of a Nobel prize, Willy Fowler, Hoyle’s collaborator, along with Subramanyan Chandrasekhar received the prize. But not Hoyle. Was it because of his insistence on steady state theory and derision of the Big bang theory ? Was it because of his criticism of the Nobel committee for leaving Bell out earlier?

Henrietta Leavitt was one among a group of women who worked in the Harvard Astronomy department and were known as computers. This was before the actual computers came into the picture. These women analyzed the data and did all the computations by hand to derive conclusions. Leavitt analyzed data from a group of stars known as Cepheids. These stars blink with a certain regularity. She found a relationship between the period of fluctuation and apparent brightness from a group of Cepheids in the Magellanic cloud. By measuring the distance to one such star (through other methods like parallax wherein measuring the position of the same star during different places of the Earth or at different times), a standard candle has been established. The distance of any other Cepheid can be measured by the period of its blinks. Using the same standard candle, Edwin Hubble found that Andromeda is a separate galaxy and is very far away (about 2 million light years).

It is reported that the Nobel committee was very impressed with the discovery of the standard candle and wanted to nominate Leavitt for a Nobel prize. By the time they made their inquiries, she was already dead (died of cancer in 1921). Hubble’s discovery paved the way for other distant galaxies and that they are all moving away from each other. After he died, a Nobel committee member told his widow that Hubble was being considered for a Nobel prize when he died.

The last example is of a chemist whose discovery impacted the life sciences, not astronomy. Rosalind Franklin worked on X-ray crystallography, which uses X-rays to bombard any given substance and then the resulting diffraction is used  to determine the structure of the molecules. In one of her studies, she pictured a double helical shape. Francis Crick and James Watson saw those pictures and they got ideas that the structure of the DNA molecule is similar. She also corrected their model of the DNA molecule. She died of cancer at an early age of 37 in 1956. Watson, Crick and Franklin’s boss Maurice Wilkins won the 1962 Nobel prize for the discovery of DNA structure. While Franklin did a lot of work in other areas like structure of coal and viruses, she did not get any credit for the DNA molecule, which contains the script of life.

I am not interested in speculations, scandals and complaints, but to salute the people who made significant contributions and put them on the same pedestal as their lucky counterparts.

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Prasad Ganti

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