The winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2014 were announced today: Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, three physicists who managed to produce bright blue light beams from their semi-conductors in the early 1990s, thus inventing blue light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
In case you're wondering why that's a big deal: red and green LEDs have been around for a very long time, but it was only with the advent of blue LEDs in the 1990s that white-light LEDs became possible. LEDs are long-lasting and extremely energy efficient - since a quarter of the world's energy is used on lighting, they will contribute greatly to saving the planet's resources. And because of their lower power requirements, they can be powered by cheap local solar power, and thus hold great promise for increasing the quality of life for over 1.5 billion people who lack access to electricity grids. The LED is truly the light source of the future.
This is great, but perhaps it's worth reflecting on the fact that today's winners were male...as they were last year, and the year before that, and before that...for the past fifty years. In fact, only two women have ever won the Nobel Prize in Physics. Marie Curie was one of them - impressively, she was the first person ever to win two Nobel Prizes!
But - as the linked article points out - it's not as though there aren't many, many deserving women. For example, Vera Rubin, whose pioneering work led to the discovery of dark matter (the mysterious stuff that makes up most of the matter in the universe!). Or Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered radio pulsars, for which her male supervisor received the Nobel ("No-Bell"?) prize. And many more.
What's the problem? Of course, physics as a whole is still horribly unequal when it comes to gender. In the USA, only about 10% of physics professors are women; in the UK, the number is about half that. But given all the deserving candidates, maybe the lack of female Nobel Prize winners in physics also reflects a more sinister gender bias still present in the field.
Whatever the case, I hope that women in physics will start to be given their due soon!
No Nobel Prize has come close to being equitably distributed by gender, but physics has the worst record of them all. Zero women have won it in the past 50 years. Exactly two women have won it ever. One of them was Marie Curie, who won with her husband, Pierre, and Henri Becquerel in 1903, at a time when women were almost entirely excluded from science.