Generations: The Story of Women in Neutrino Research

women-in-nu-research-panel1Excerpted with permission from Generations: The Story of Women in Neutrino Research (Women in Science 78), by Dale DeBakcsy, 30 Nov 2016.

The most powerful force in the study of physics is not gravity or electromagnetism… It is accounting.

“But that doesn’t quite add up” has produced heartache and exhilaration in equal measure, and the tantalization created by blank space in the universe’s checkbook has pushed few areas of science to such heights as that of neutrino research, starting with Wolfgang Pauli’s desperate invention of the neutrino in 1930 to balance the books of Beta Decay…

It took a full quarter century before the first neutrinos were actually detected, by Reines and Cowan in 1956.

That discovery kicked off a mad dash of neutrino hunting with results that continue to be astonishing and deeply troubling.  Until the 1970s, the leading figures in the hunt for neutrinos and their properties were overwhelmingly men: Ettore Majorana, who theorized that the neutrino might be its own antiparticle, Bruno Pontecorvo, who predicted the strange phenomenon of neutrino oscillations, and John Bahcall, whose model of the sun predicted a neutrino output that, when combined with Ray Davis’s exquisite measuring of solar neutrino emissions, produced a puzzle that motivated a generation to search for and confirm Pontecorvo’s oscillation hypothesis.

Physics has famously the worst record for gender parity of the modern sciences.  Less than ten percent of full professorships in physics departments are filled by women, and so it would come as no surprise had neutrino physics continued on its path of male-dominated research to the present day.  And yet, it didn’t.  In the early 1970s, the tip of the gender wedge entered neutrino studies in the form of Linda Stutte, who came to Fermilab in 1972, and Wyatt Merritt, who arrived in 1973…

I find it heartening to look at a burgeoning new field and see, within the space of four decades, a roster of innovative women scientists spring up that includes people like Heidi Schellman, Linda Stutte, Wyatt Merritt, Janet Conrad, Debbie Harris, Jenny Thomas, Jen Raaf, Kate Scholberg, Donna Naples, Regina Rameika, Patricia Vahle, Sam Zeller, Bonnie Fleming, Mayly Sanchez, and Kanika Sachdev. Things are not yet where they ought to be, but for the science-prone daughters of this generation, looking for heroes in whose footsteps they might follow, the world is a bit less lonely.

From the nus2surf editorial board: A glaring ommission to this list of undeniably talented women is Mary Bishai of BNL, who deserves mention as one of the powerhouses of first LBNE and now DUNE.

Read the full article.

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To find the unfindable foe… Credit: Dale DeBakcsy