Kick-starting 2019 with laser physics

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Our Café Scientifique “Women’s Journey’s in STEM” kicked off last week with our amazing Co-Chair Dr Ceri Brenner discussing laser physics and the reasons why she was so excited by the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. This excitement was three-fold: it honouring her field of research, the prize was shared prize equally for the collaborative work between a PhD student and their supervisor, and that it was the third time in history that there was a named female scientist.

Ceri kicked off by explaining that the Noble Prize was won not one but two advances in laser physics. The first was the discovery that lasers can be used to suspend, or levitate, small particles creating laser tweezers which are used to study the microscopic world, such as viruses and bacteria. The second discovery was the development of the principle of chirped pulse amplification, the process by which allows us to create high powered laser used in laser eye surgery, as well as some amazing research that Ceri herself is involved in. My personal highlight was when she whipped out a fan which was integral to explaining chirped pulse amplification.

Over the history of the Noble Prize in Physics only three women have ever been honoured- Marie Curie in 1903 for the discovery of radioactivity, Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963 for characterising the nuclear shell model of the atom and then Donna Strickland last year for the aforementioned chirped pulse amplification. Does this mean in between those times women haven’t been doing physics?! Of course not- and Ceri was here to illuminate some of the ground-breaking work female physicists have been involved in over that time and the common thread between these three women is that their work contributed equally to the Noble Prize in Physics but their male colleagues were awarded the prize, not them.

In 1944, Lise Meitner was part of the team who discovered fission of uranium. Chien-Shiung Wu, often referred to as the “First Lady of Physics”, in 1957 conducted an experiment which disproved the law of conservation- this was a ground breaking moment in nuclear physics and she was not recognised for her contribution until 1978 when she was honoured with the Wolf Prize. The astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell co-discovered first radio pulsars in 1967 and this was awarded the Noble Prize in 1974 but she was excluded from the prize.

Always looking to the future, Ceri provided us with some women who are “ones to remember” starting with Vera Rubin, who has confirmed the existence of dark matter. Then there is Michelle Simmons who is spearheading pioneering research into atomic electronic and quantum computing. This list was rounded off with Muyinatu Bell who is making advances in medical physics using photoacoustic image-guided surgery techniques. These fields of research are both awe-inspiring and mind boggling and I look forward to hearing more about these women in the not to distant future!

All in all this was a great kick-start to our season of celebrating women’s journeys in STEM and I think we should add Ceri’s name to the list of women to watch in physics- she is most definitely going places.

See you all next month for Laura Holland’s talk on Rosalind Franklin: DNA and beyond.

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