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The Women who have won the Nobel Prize in Physics​​

March is International Women’s month, so it seems like the perfect time to celebrate the women who have been awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics. There have only been a total of four women to receive this prestigious award, namely Marie Curie, Maria Goeppert Mayer, Donna Strickland, and Andrea Ghez. This article will detail the research each woman did to achieve the Nobel Prize, as well as the context of their discoveries.







Marie Curie (1903)

Arguably the most famous of these Nobel Prize winners, Marie Curie won her award for research on radioactive phenomena. Curie received half the Nobel Prize for Physics, shared with her husband, but at first, the committee had only intended to award it to him. This was the first Nobel Prize for Physics ever awarded to a woman.


The specific research that was recognised for a Nobel Prize in Physics was the discovery of radioactivity. Radioactivity is the spontaneous emission of energy, in the form of radiation, a term that Curie herself coined. Marie Curie researched whether uranium, a weakly radioactive element, was found in other materials. She then analysed pitchblende, a mineral made partially of uranium but had a higher amount of radiation. Curie investigated other elements that pitchblende could be made up of and, as a result of this, discovered new elements: polonium and radium. Following this, she had ambitions of obtaining pure radium, and following this achievement, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903. 


Maria Goeppert Mayer (1963)

60 years after Marie Curie was awarded her Nobel Prize for Physics, Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second female recipient. She received the Prize for her work in 1963 on the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. Goeppert Mayer shared her award with two other physicists who came to the same conclusion as her.


The nuclear shell model describes the exact makeup of the atomic nucleus, through the exact numbers of protons and neutrons. Maria Goeppert Mayer’s mathematical work on this model described why there are certain amounts of neutrons and protons in stable atoms. She beautifully described the model in terms of waltzers dancing and spinning in circles.


Donna Strickland (2018)

The next female Nobel Prize in Physics award winner wouldn’t be until another half-century later, with Donna Strickland. Strickland was awarded the Prize for her work on chirped pulse amplification and its applications. Although the research itself was published in 1985, she didn’t receive the award until 2018. 


Chirped pulse amplification (CPA) is a technique that takes a very short laser pulse (a light flash) and makes it brighter. The technique is useful for making extremely precise cuts, so is used for many laser-related applications, such as laser eye surgery. The wide range of uses CPA has in medicine makes this an important discovery for physics which led to Strickland being awarded the Nobel Prize award. 


Andrea Ghez (2020)

The result of the work of Andrea Ghez, the fourth female Nobel Prize in Physics recipient, may be the most exciting conclusion of the research described in this article. Ghez won the award for her role in discovering a black hole in the centre of our galaxy.


A black hole is a very dense, compact object with gravity so strong that not even light can escape it. Until recently, physicists have not been able to visually observe black holes but instead can detect them by looking at how other objects, such as stars, behave around one. Andrea Ghez and her team used the movement of Sagittarius A* to prove that there was a black hole in the centre of the Milky Way.


Written by Madeleine Hales

Related articles: Female Nobel prize winners in chemistry / African-American women in cancer research

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