Mary K. Gaillard: One Woman's Journey In Physics
Robert Sanders | AUGUST 17, 2015
"I became a feminist by necessity," writes Mary K. Gaillard, known simply as Mary K around the UC Berkeley physics department. "My passion was physics."
Gaillard teaching at UC Berkeley in the early 1980s. Courtesy of Emilio Segre archives, LBNL
In her new book, A Singularly Unfeminine Profession: One Woman's Journey in Physics, Gaillard writes about the slights and frustrations that gradually raised her consciousness as she rose to the top among theoretical physicists trying to understand the complexities of the universe's fundamental particles. The wife of a physicist, she mothered three young children while simultaneously laying the theoretical groundwork for key experiments that proved the validity of the Standard Model, now accepted as the best description of three of the four forces of nature.
Among her credits were correct predictions of the masses of the charmed and bottom quarks, two of the six quarks that make up all the matter we see around us. And 40 years before the world heard of the Higgs particle, she produced the roadmap experimentalists needed to find it. And they did, in 2013, a feat that earned theoretical physicists Peter Higgs and François Englert the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics.
After 17 years as a visiting scientist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside Geneva, Switzerland, Gaillard joined the UC Berkeley physics department in 1981 as its first woman faculty member. Now 76 years old, a professor in the graduate school and a senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, she is an inspiration to young women students in physics, particularly graduate and undergraduate students interested in theoretical physics.
Why did you write this book?
I had never thought about writing a book until I went out to dinner with an old friend, someone I knew when he was a postdoc at CERN, and he talked about a book he had written. At the end of the dinner his wife asked me when I was going to write my book. I was sort of surprised, but I started to think about it and talked with students. And I found out that they were interested in knowing something about my history and background, and I thought that maybe other people would be too. One woman student asked me why I stayed in the field when I told about some of the worst experiences I'd had.
Your book's title comes from an offhand remark made by a fellow high school student when you told him you planned to pursue a career in physics. Did this reflect the attitude you encountered growing up?
I lived in a small town in Ohio, and everybody treated me there pretty much like anybody else. A lot of that has to do with my family, but I think it was also just part of the culture in the school. I was always good in math, and the teachers encouraged me.
When I took physics in my senior year in high school. I liked pulling things apart and putting them back together when I was just a kid, but I didn’t think of it as a career.
It sounds as if you had a generally positive experience at Hollins College in Virginia and as a summer student at Brookhaven National Laboratory. But you wrote that when you were a master’s degree student at Columbia University, your professors didn't seem to take you seriously, assuming that you would get married and have children and drop out of physics. What happened when you went to Europe to get your doctorate?
When I went to Europe I felt like I'd been punched in the face. It was just a total shock the way I was treated when I first went there. I got the tour of all these labs in Paris, and they turned me down. Essentially, they took only people from two schools, which were all male. But it wasn't just that. The comments people made were unconscionable. You would be kicked off the faculty for saying some of the things they said to me.
What did they say?
"You came to France to get married, not to do physics." To my husband, in front of me: "You already bought the merchandise." "Men do theory; women do experiments." The 'proof' that women can't do theory is that "Yugoslavia is a perfectly egalitarian society and there are no women theorists there." And some that I prefer not to repeat.
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