July 22, 2024

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Column |  Invest in a woman

Column | Invest in a woman

Last month, Anne Lhuillier, winner of the 2023 Nobel Prize in Physics, visited Eindhoven. First she lectured at ASML; Then at the annual meeting of the Dutch Physical Society, held at TU/e. She beautifully places her award-winning work on ultrashort laser pulses in a broader context, with much interest in collaboration with colleagues, PhD students and post-doctoral students.

A colleague also thought she was eye-catching afterward. And no, you can’t draw conclusions from one reading. On the other side The search appears That women are interrupted more often in public, and that they are judged negatively if they talk too much (but less than men). Much research shows more that women’s publications are evaluated (on average) more negatively during peer reviews; They are read (on average) more often, but at the same time cited (on average) less. In such a climate, it is natural for women to focus less on their work – although this does not necessarily have to be the case with Anne Lhuillier.

However, my colleague thought it would be better for women to be more bold. Apply for larger research grants. They are less likely to put their success in perspective; Stand your ground. Or would it be better if everyone focused more on cooperation? Wouldn’t a lot of men be happy about that too?

I thought about the book about women’s contributions to developments in quantum physics (lasers are one such development) that I’m working on with three editors and a group of colleagues. The early history of quantum physics is usually described in terms of the “Big Five”: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrödinger. And it often is Image shown From the Solvay meeting in 1927 where the Big Five debated intensely with more than twenty other physicists about the explanation of all these new ideas. Among them is a woman: Marie Curie.

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Change society

A photo like this will never be taken again. According to some, we are now at it A second quantum revolution. It is now one in which past quantum visions produce new technologies that will transform society, such as quantum networks, quantum computers, and quantum sensors. To respond to this as best as possible, a whole system is being developed in the Netherlands “Quantum Ecosystem” Forged. coincidence, in PhotonicsSomething similar happens when playing with light.

The “ecosystem” here is of course a metaphor taken from ecology – the doctrine (logos) of the home (oikos), distorted into an ecosystem. Ecologists study how organisms in a given environment—such as heath or peat—relate to each other and to all sorts of environmental aspects such as air humidity, climate, or soil acidity. When people borrow the word ecosystem, they usually think of a healthy ecosystem in which many species thrive.

The quantum or photonic ecosystem must also guarantee something like this: trained technicians at training centers and regional colleges, researchers from universities, Patent OfficersTogether, technology developers, startup investors, school teachers, and other experts form a network full of interrelationships in which new technology can flourish and integrate into society. In this sense, the scientific ecosystem during that first quantum revolution was a monoculture.

A new ecosystem needs a diverse group of people To feel at home. This is not easy. The Big Five and the image of 1927 are present in the minds of many physicists and technology developers, and stereotypes of wild-haired professors have become ingrained in the collective memory. The fact that such images align so closely with traditional ideas about gender that are passed down from generation to generation and beyond through TikTok makes them even more persistent.

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Round faces

Does it also play a role that these images closely match our primate brain, which Mariska Crete wrote about last week? For example, thanks to their primate reflexes, people are said to trust people more with round faces and large eyes (Einstein obliges), and are more likely to see people with straight jaws and close-set eyes as in control and capable. By the way, none of the Big Five in quantum physics has such a face.

Primate reactions may be able to explain something else. Specifically, only 5% of investments in European high-tech start-ups go to… A startup led by (only) a woman. One reason for this is that women find it difficult to raise seed capital. Because investors may subconsciously judge that a person with a female face does not have leadership qualities?

This is not certain, of course. Either way it’s frustrating. Orangutans, as recently reported in the news, appear to apply plant pulp to a wound to speed up the healing process. Humans can now create very short laser pulses, music scores, and quantum computers. So shouldn’t this person also be able to get rid of major reactions and stereotypes that no longer fit with the way we (want) to live now? So, if you are an investor, choose a startup headed by a woman!

Margaret van der Heijden is a physicist and professor of science communication at TU Eindhoven.