Photos of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics Rainer Weiss, Barry C. Barish and Kip S. Thorne are seen on a screen as Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Goran K. Hansson (C) announces the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden on October 3, 2017.
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By Valentina Zarya
October 3, 2017

Three U.S. scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics Tuesday “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves.” The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish are credited with detecting the waves that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago and described as “ripples” in the fabric of the universe.

With Tuesday’s announcement, the total number of Physics Nobel Prize recipients has increased to 206 (the total number of Prizes is 207; John Bardeen received the award twice).

Of these 206 individuals, only two—or a mere 1%—have been women. And even these women didn’t get “full” prizes.

The first is the well-known scientist Marie Curie (who is also the only woman to be awarded a Nobel twice). In 1903, when she received the Physics award, it was divided between Antoine Henri Becquerel, who got half the award (“in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity”), and Pierre and Marie Curie, who split the other 50%—meaning they each received a quarter of the prize.

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Sixty years later, Maria Goeppert Mayer became the second women to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics—and she, too, received a quarter of it. The lion’s share was awarded to Eugene Paul Wigner (“for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles”), while she and J. Hans D. Jensen split the remaining half “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.”

Physics is the Nobel category in which women have the least representation. In total, 48 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2017. Of the six award categories, the Nobel Prize for literature has had the most female representation (12.5%), with the Nobel Peace Prize following closely behind (12.4%).


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