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The rockstar of physics

Today we enter briefly into the world of Gabriella Greison, degree in nuclear physics from the University of Milan, physicist, writer, and performer, referred to as ‘the rockstar of physics’ by Italian media, on her book Sei donne che hanno cambiato il mondo (Six women who changed the world).

David: Through the work of Ruth Lewin Sime, I have come to understand that nuclear fission was not solely a chemistry discovery because Meitner’s role was primary. My personal impression of the correspondence between Meitner and Hahn is that, if anything, Hahn’s role was secondary to Meitner's as he relied on her both for the kinds of experiments to be conducted as well as for the interpretation of the results. Despite this, on many occasions, even as late as 2013 at Columbia University, I heard particle physicists trot out the usual story of Meitner’s subordinate role in the discovery. What has been your experience discussing this theme over the years?

Gabriella: I congratulate you for recovering the great work by Ruth Lewin Sime, given that the mainstream is spreading other works instead. The problem is precisely this, physics has historically always been made by men, and has always been spread by men. Physics is the hardest science, and therefore considered as a leisure of men until the entire 20th century. For women there were other amusements, such as taking care of the sick, having children, being wives, looking after great men without having pretensions. A splendid report came out in Nature last month, listing the ways in which women have been prevented (prevented!) from doing physics and having visibility. The problem is this: women have been prevented, there is no other word. There are no clichés that say that the brains of women and men are different, or that one is better suited for some studies and others for others. The case of Lise Meitner falls within these cases of sensational historical cancellations. Lise Meitner, being a woman, could not study the world of the infinitely small, because nuclear physics was completely a man's profession, she could be an 'unpaid assistant', or a guest, certainly not having an equal role with another physicist. In fact, she and Otto Hahn could only initial papers when they sent them to print for publication, because no one was supposed to know that a woman was involved in quantum physics. Yet it was a man who had wanted it, it was the great Max Planck! And their publications ended up on the tables of all the greats of science, astounding everyone for the great discoveries they found. To answer your question, it suffices to cite the case when Ernest Rutherford had noticed the couple L.M. and O.H., through their articles, and he wanted to know them. They made the trip to England, just to get to know Rutherford, and when they made the introductions, he said "O.H. so it's you, Dr. Otto Hahn, congratulations!", and then he said "Whereas L.M. is she? A woman? Fine, my wife is outside my office, why doesn't she join her and go shopping together, while I talk physics with Dr. Otto Hahn?". Here's why history has overshadowed Lise Meitner. In addition to making it like this, men have also disseminated physics in books, publications, radio and TV programs. Until today. Today things can no longer be like this, today we have awareness as a weapon. This is what my book is for.

David: Understanding the importance of Nobel Prize-earning scientific work is often difficult because it tends not to be as earth-shattering as discovering, for example, that Newton’s laws are not obeyed out in the universe at large. Yet, that is what Vera Rubin discovered. How were you introduced to Rubin’s discovery and is it your experience that experts minimized its value? Why did you choose to explore her less deeply in your work?

Gabriella: Vera Rubin was a great scientist. She is a reference for me. I chose to tell her in the final chapter of my book because I included her among the modern female scientists whose memory needs to be handed down. In my 'Six women who changed the world' I had to select six names, and I worked hard on these names, to also create a theatrical show that represented them. It's as if I wanted to create a huge puzzle where the six scientists put together represent all of us. With the names I chose, I made it.

As for Vera Rubin, she experienced a modern awareness that others lacked. She wrestled for us, she created with her experience useful material to use in our everyday life. The men who disclosed them have minimized the memory of it, of course. Exactly as they did with all the others that I tell in my book. My stories always start from very accurate research, from a long time spent reading popular books, and when my anger really rises to high levels I have to be the one to remedy it.

David: In my experience, men that struggle to accept women in physics can still be found lurking around every corner and their antipathy for women colleagues often reveals itself in the need to label them in ways designed to constrain, delimit or bound, labels that psychologically confer power by circumscription. “Isn’t she great?” is a common one I hear in descriptions of female colleagues that no one would use to describe a male. It’s deceivingly pleasant-sounding. Does this kind of behavior sound familiar? Can you describe personal anecdotes that have colored your physics trajectory that reveal pressures women in physics experience in the 21st century?

Gabriella: Even today there are phrases that denigrate, belittle, muddy, mock female scientists. In my experience I have lived them, but in defense of those who say they have not lived them I can say that awareness comes late, it comes after the age of 40, and for some it really doesn't come. We live in a male-dominated society that has inculcated certain phrases, certain values, certain ideologies in us, and some of them don't even notice us anymore.

The most sensational sentences are: “are you so beautiful because you want to do physics?” or “do you want to do physics to find a husband?” These sentences demotivate the younger generations in undertaking the scientific path. Some phrases that are said by men or male fellow scientists are “Tie your hair back, you don't have to do a photo shoot!” or “Take off your heels, you're not in a fashion show.”

Female scientists are also mocked in more subtle ways. Their articles are not commented on, they are ignored. They are not heard at conferences. The women organize the conferences, but then the men do the talking. When a woman sits down in a meeting of men, they stand up, or talk about superfluous things. Compliments are made on clothing. Clothing is criticized. Reference is made to whether they have had and want to have children.

I say only one thing to girls starting a scientific journey: if one thing is thanks to you, take the credit; if a thing is not your merit, take the credit; they've always done that. And then I say my motto: “Don't stay where or with who doesn't make you flourish.”

David: Your writing clearly reveals optimism. Paint your picture for women in physics by the end of this century.

Gabriella: Women of the 21st century have a prairie in front of them where they can run. They can do whatever they want. Today we have awareness that makes us run. I didn't have a voice, that's why I built a stage to speak, I built it myself. From my website (and my social network)

you can trace all my works: 10 novels on physics-based historical reconstructions, 8 theatrical shows, 5 podcasts, 3 TV programs.

I lived in a world built by men and shaped for them, I built my own world to be myself. I fulfilled my dreams of having a voice, this is my greatest achievement. All women today can have one.

David: Thank you Gabriella!

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