Of awards and women

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was founded in 2012 by Yuri Milner to recognise those individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge. It is open to all physicists – theoretical, mathematical, experimental – working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe. (Source)

When these prizes were first awarded seven years ago, a bit of the jubilation focused on whether this prize, and others like it, would supersede the Nobel Prizes by virtue of placing ‘less stringent’ limits on who could win them. Although Milner, an Israeli-Russian billionaire, has denied the Breakthrough Prizes were designed to overshadow the Nobel Prizes, the comparisons are inescapable. Notwithstanding the ‘no posthumous’ winners constraint, the Nobel Prizes can’t be awarded to more than three people/entities at a time nor to experimentally unverified theoretical advancements.

In fact, many winners of the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics have been theoreticians whose contributions have been principally mathematical. The latest winners, announced on August 6, have been recognised for their contributions to a theory that melds general relativity and particle physics, although the decision has come under fire because the theory hasn’t been verified to be true. This is excluding the Special Breakthrough Prize, which has been awarded as a more immediate recognition of significant achievements, such as to the collaboration that discovered the Higgs boson. In all, it has been awarded thrice since 2013.

Because laureates don’t have to wait until their theoretical ideas are verified, they have received the prize’s sizeable cash component – $3 million (Rs 21.2 crore) – at a time when they can spend it to advance their careers. On the other hand, Nobel laureates have to wait for verification. For example, Peter Higgs and Francois Englert won the physics prize in 2013 for an idea they had published 49 years before. So the average age of the Nobel laureate, who receives a part or all of $1.1 million (Rs 7.8 crore), is 59.14 years, with 372 people having won it at 60 years or above.

However, there is one aspect in which the Breakthrough Prizes are very much like the Nobel Prizes. The latter are notorious for overlooking women, in some cases to the point of actively sidelining their candidacy in favour of the men that worked with them. One argument is that because the Nobel Prizes are usually awarded decades after the winning discovery/invention was made, and not many women worked in STEM at that time, it is unfair to blame the prizes for including so few women. However, it doesn’t help that the Nobel Prizes committee deliberately ignored opportunities to recognise women who did contribute in major ways, such as Chien-Shiung Wu and Jocelyn Bell.

Similarly, the Breakthrough Prizes in physics also count no female laureates. Specifically, the fundamental physics prize (excluding the Special Breakthrough Prize) has been won by 0 women and 32 men since 2012 (excluding 2020’s winners: three men). The same numbers for the life sciences (2013-2019) are 9 women and 34 men, and for mathematics (2015-2019), 0 women and 10 men. The geographical distribution is also skewed, with most laureates being from the US and Europe.

One must remember that, contrary to popular perception, the Nobel Prizes are not and cannot be the gatekeepers of accomplishment. A lot of other factors drawn from different geographical and cultural contexts decide that. Instead, the Nobel Prizes, and the Breakthrough Prizes for that matter, are gatekeepers of a community of winners that have snagged the attention of a prize-selection committee guided by its own principles and biases. This is important to acknowledge because the absence of women on the roster of laureates could indicate a deeper problem with the nomination/selection procedure instead of giving the impression that “women aren’t good enough”.

It should also be possible for us to acknowledge that the complete absence of women among the physics and mathematics laureates is a problem without diminishing the fact that the men who won these prizes deserved to (with some reservations about the lack of experimental proof that their contributions are valid). It doesn’t help that the winners of subsequent years’ prizes are composed of all the previous laureates, so without any women winning the prizes for physics or mathematics, the group of selectors simply includes more and more men.

This brings us to my final point: the enterprise of award-giving cannot escape the expectation to represent the reality of the scientific enterprise even if its ‘mission statement’ maintains that it simply wishes to recognise good work, especially when the prize money is $3 million. Neither the Nobel Prizes nor the Breakthrough Prizes exist in a vacuum. They want the attention of the world’s people, they want to be equated with prestige, and they wish to set themselves up as aspirations. In effect (and notwithstanding the fact that setting one’s career up just to win an award would be a terrible idea), awards’ claims to merit don’t excuse them from being evaluated except through the lens of the prevailing sociopolitical zeitgeist.

In this regard, the absence of women is certainly a thorn in the crown of the prize’s legitimacy.

Note: This article was originally published in The Wire. This is a modified version.