In my recent post I discussed  Alessandro Strumia’s CERN talk, where he provided statistical evidence for discrimination in favor of women in Physics (except in China, where women are, apparently, discriminated against). Curiously, the very next day more anecdotal support came for Strumia’s thesis. The Nobel Prizes in Physics were announced, and this year they were awarded 1/2 to Arthur Ashkin and 1/2 to Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland, the third woman in history to receive the award. It was immediately noted that Strickland was, at the time of the award (though obviously not for much longer) an Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo Physics department. There was immediate wailing, gnashing of teeth, and talk of glass ceilings.

However, the truth is, in a way, much worse. The standard metric in the hard sciences (less so in pure mathematics, which is a much smaller field) is the h-index. The h-index of a researcher equals N if he has N papers each of which has at least N citations (so, notice that the number of citations thus counted is equal to the square of N). Typically, prominent scientists (in physics and chemistry) have h-index in the forties and above. This year, Ashkin has an h-index of 52 (a little low, but then, but he is an industrial physicist), Mourou has an h-index of 110. Other relatively recent Nobel prize winners have h-index at least in the sixties. Dr. Strickland has an h-index of 15 (all numbers according to the Web of Science), which is consistent with still being an associate professor in a decent department. I have no expertise in photonics, so I don’t know the extent of Strickland’s contribution to her joint work with Mourou, but recent comments by the Nobel  Prize committee about the insufficient number of female Nobelists cannot help but come to mind.

Remark: Of course, the citation numbers in Mathematics (while less relevant) are also interesting: most recent Fields medalists have h-index around 16. The two notable exceptions are the late Maryam Mirzakhani (9) and C. Birkar (suspected by some as a political medal, being a refugee from the middle east) (also 9) [note, this is according to MathSciNet, since the Web of Science makes a mess of mathematics journals). Make of this what you will.

Leave a Reply