Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Nuclear Physics: Not Just for Men

Just a follow up to the story which ran in the Times last week. As Paul pointed out in the comment to my post, it was an unfortunate example of the perception of physics as ultimately a boy's game. In this case, the story made working at RHIC sound literally like "grown men gathering around wide-screen TVs to watch collisions" -- or Star Trek -- despite showing several women in the photograph. Two of my colleagues at BNL and Stony Brook -- Sally Dawson (the chair of the physics department) and Barbara Jacak (recently-elected Spokesperson of PHENIX) -- have justly objected to this somewhat-skewed portrayal, in a letter to the Times:
Nuclear physics experiments at Brookhaven Lab’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider involve a lot more than men viewing wide-screen monitors in a control room rooting for collisions.

The Phenix and STAR collaborations at RHIC are large teams that run these experiments. They include about a thousand scientists — women and men, young and old — from around the globe. And though exploration of the moment just after the Big Bang may sound like science fiction, house-sized detectors, fast electronics and large-scale computers are in use here and now, revealing that the early universe was a dense liquid of quarks and gluons.

Women earn 21 percent of bachelor’s degrees in physics and are as excited as men about looking so far back in time. The science, and the technology needed to do that science, will make them — and Long Island — future economic leaders.

Barbara Jacak
Stony Brook
Sally Dawson
The writers are, respectively, Phenix Collaboration spokeswoman and chairwoman of the physics department at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
While we still have a way to go before we reach the numbers of women one finds in countries like Italy or Spain (which were striking during my student days at CERN, after spending my life to that point in the US), the trends are clearly headed in the right direction.

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