December 15th, 2017

Nobel Prize Laureate surprise guest speaker at conference

By Submitted Article on August 12, 2017.

Arundhati Dasgupta

University of Lethbridge

The International Conference on Women in Physics (ICWIP2017) concluded recently at the University of Birmingham, Birmingham, U.K. The conference is the sixth in a series organized by the working group of women in physics of the International Union of Pure and Applied physics (IUPAP).

Two female physicists, Adriana Predoi-Cross and Arundhati Dasgupta, represented Lethbridge in the Canadian delegation to the conference.

More than 48 countries were represented and the situation of women at academic positions all over the world, shows that physics is still a male-dominated field of human endeavour. In Canada the percentage of women full-time university physics teachers has been stagnant at 12.4 per cent over a decade; in Japan it has risen from four to eight per cent. In India it is slightly better, though there are very few women in leadership positions. France is a country in the developed world which shows good inclusion of women in physics (21 per cent in academics and 19 per cent in research institutes), but they are still trailing in number of women invited to speak at conferences.

Prof. Dame Bell Burnell, the discoverer of pulsars (neutron stars which rotate, such that their emitted radio signals blip periodically on Earth’s detectors) was awarded the Institute of Physics President’s Medal during the conference and gave a very inspirational talk in which she asked women to be “Persistent, take risks, surprise yourself.” Prof. Dame Donald, a gender champion at Cambridge University, said she showed “science is a normal activity for women to do.”

Prof. Lago from Portugal, an expert in astronomy, suggested that investment in science is anti-correlated with the number of women in physics, showing there is something wrong in the culture of physics. Prof. Nneka-Okeke from Nigeria gave a description of her achievements and research in magnetosphere physics. Prof. Gonzalez from gravity wave observatory LIGO, Prof. Ma from China and Prof. Rubinsztein-Dunlop from Australia also spoke about their research. Workshops concluded that the system has to be fixed to encourage women to study physics; scientific talent otherwise gets wasted. The quality of scientific posters presented was also very impressive at ICWIP2017.

The conference was refreshing due to the way many divisive identities were eliminated. Science was in focus, and diversity was encouraged. We were asked to speak to new physicists at every discussion, and interdisciplinary collaborations were fostered. The spectrum of cultures represented was also fascinating e.g. In the Professional Development and Leadership workshop, a suggestion from a U.K. physicist in Industry was to include men who were “feminists” or supported women at the workplace. A very enthusiastic Bangladeshi Team leader, however, surmised that only women helped women faculty in physics in her milieu. Two women physicists completely covered in Burkha from Yemen, sat in the front listening silently to the debate.

The surprise of the conference was a visit by Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Noble Prize Laureate, on the final day. She has just finished schooling in Birmingham, and had come to address the conference on request of Pakistani physicist Dr. Anisa Qamar. As the delegates realized we were about to witness history, Malala was quietly ushered in by her security, and she gave a quick speech on the importance of education for girls. She described how, when the Taliban had stopped all schools in her area, her father secretly continued the girls’ school with three students. She emphasized the importance of speaking up, as that was the only option. She had been to visit the Nigerian Chibok girls, kidnapped by Boko Haram, and told us about the fear of just “being school girls” had brought upon them. Some of the delegates had moist eyes, and thanked Malala for taking the time away from her busy schedule.

To our delight, Malala came to see the Canadian poster; Shohini Ghose and Erin Aucoin, two team members (Erin being the youngest member of the team), explained the efforts to get more women in physics implemented by various organizations in Canada. We invited Malala to Canada, where she is an honorary citizen. A group photo with Malala followed and Dr. Anisa Qamar waved wistfully as Malala left with her father and security guards.

One of the delegates had asked Malala if she intended to study physics, and she had answered that she found physics very hard, and had dropped it for her “A” levels. She studied philosophy, political science and economics (PPE) instead.

Following the physics department chair at University of Birmingham, we also extend our offer to her: “Hi, Malala, physics is not that difficult, it is very interesting. It is the basis of all human knowledge. Physics can also explore the working of the human consciousness which gives rise to PPE. If you change your mind you are welcome to study physics here in Lethbridge and enjoy it like us.”

Arundhati Dasgupta is a physics professor at the University of Lethbridge.

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