A Singularly Unfeminine Profession

Phenomenologist Mary K. Gaillard has recently published an autobiographical memoir, with the title A Singularly Unfeminine Profession, and last week’s Nature has a detailed review.

Gaillard is a very distinguished HEP phenomenologist, with a career that began in the 1960s, taking her in 1981 to a professorship at Berkeley, from which she is now retired. She has been married to two other physicists, Jean-Marc Gaillard and Bruno Zumino.

One highlight of her career is her work on charmed particles, which included an accurate prediction of the charmed quark mass (1.5 GeV, in this paper with Ben Lee, see page 905). The prediction came in a paper published in mid-1974, months before the discovery of the J/Psi in November. Unfortunately she and Lee didn’t have the courage to put the prediction in the abstract, which just said “the average mass of charmed pseudoscalar states lies below 10 GeV”.

Wikipedia also credits her (with Chanowitz and Ellis) with a prediction of the b-quark mass. Maybe I’m missing something here, but this appears to be much less justifiable, since the paper was based on an SU(5) model which is known not to work. It’s also a much vaguer prediction, and appears in the abstract in a mistaken form. In the book, Gaillard tells the story:

We were correcting the proofs for the published version of the paper in July, at around the same time I went to pick up Leon Lederman at the Geneva airport, and, through a screen near the baggage claim gate, he handed me a beautiful histogram showing clear evidence for a b-bbar spin-one bound state – named Upsilon by its discoverers – with a mass of about 10 billion electron volts, in other words, evidence for a bottom quark with a mass of about five billion electron volts. John quickly penciled in a correction to the abstract with our more precise prediction, but his handwriting was so bad the “to” was read as “60”, and our prediction came out in print as


implying a b-quark mass of over 5000 billion electron volts.

The upsilon discovery was announced publicly at a press conference only later, in August. I can’t help noticing that it seems that back in 1977 discussing results of an HEP experiment before the press conference wasn’t unusual. It is only more recently that one hears that to do this is to subvert the scientific process.

Among the many other things I learned from the book was the origin of John Hagelin and the Maharishi’s posters explaining that N=8 supergravity was the TOE fitting together with the Maharishi’s ideas. Hagelin was dating Gaillard’s cousin and learned about the N=8 story from Gaillard.

The latter part of her career focused first on supergravity, then in 1985 on superstring phenomenology. Thirty years later she’s sill working on much the same idea as in 1985 (see here). The book explains the idea of string theory unification using a compactification, but doesn’t reflect on the question of when or whether it might be a good idea to finally give up on this.

A major theme of the book is that of how her gender has affected her career, including more discussion of the details of her employment and job offers than would be usual in a book of this kind. It’s a complex story, with the details of it well worth paying attention to for anyone interested in the problems women encounter in science. Gaillard started out her career facing serious obstacles as a woman, but later on achieved a large degree of professional success. She has a lot to say about the attitudes and remarks she ran into from men along the way, often from ones who were close friends.

She is most critical of the CERN theory group, which she left in 1981 after being turned down for a senior staff position (at a time she had job offers from Berkeley and Femilab). To this day, as far as I can tell, CERN-TH has no women as permanent scientific staff, and only one (out of 19) female staff members. Perhaps things will change with the incoming CERN director…

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12 Responses to A Singularly Unfeminine Profession

  1. David Nataf says:

    I’m just posting to second the comment made by Peter: the book review at Nature.com is very good, very informative and well-written.

  2. Shantanu says:

    Peter, who is the new CERN director?
    (sorry I don’t know)

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Fabiola Gianotti will become CERN DG on Jan. 1.

  4. Jr says:

    There seems to be a word or two missing in the following sentence.

    “The upsilon discovery was announced publicly at a press conference in August, and I can’t help noticing that it seems that back in 1977 the LHC-era idea that saying anything about results to those outside the experiment pre-press conference hadn’t yet taken hold.”

  5. Peter Woit says:

    I think the sentence is correct, if not very well worded, I’ll do some editing.
    One problem with it is that I was implicitly referring to something many people might not be aware of, the criticism of this blog for discussing the Higgs discovery results before the press conference (I was “subverting the scientific process”), see

  6. sm says:


    Perhaps also missing a comma to help with the parsing.


    Who did get senior staff Cern positions in and around 1981? This might help clarify whether or not the innuendo is justified.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I personally know very little about the people involved, or what was going on at CERN-TH around that time. Sergio Ferrara’s online bio says “In 1981, he joined as a staff member the Theory Division at CERN.” Maybe he was chosen over Gaillard. (Note added: this is not the case. Ferrara was hired in 1981 to a junior position that had nothing to do with the Gaillard story). In any case, I think only those actually involved in the decision likely know what considerations were behind it and why they did not choose Gaillard.

    One interesting thing is that, looking at the CERN-TH archive page here
    it seems that this was so long ago (more than 30 years) that all the records can be consulted. If anyone at CERN wants to go take a look, perhaps they can report back…

    What is clear is that Gaillard is still pretty unhappy about this. She had been there for quite a while, was professionally very successful, and had job offers from Berkeley and Fermilab. Turning someone down in such a situation is pretty much tantamount to telling them you’d be happy if they left. I find it hard to believe that losing both her and Zumino is not something they came to regret.

    There’s always far more in such decisions than the gender issue, but to me Gaillard’s discussion of how it affected her professional life seems like a reasonable one, well worth reading. She doesn’t seem like someone quick to take offense at the inconsequential.

  8. sm says:

    What a remarkable data source you cite. Thank you. Have you thought of sharing your insights into data mining with that community?

    You’re surely right that when it comes to job offers at places like Cern there is more to the decision than gender (or spousal relations for that matter – poor Zumino, Cern forcing him to choose between his wife and a deep collaborator!). This is evidenced by the Cornell job offer to the non-publishing Wilson, which could have seemed outrageous at the time, even though he presumably conformed to the gender stereotype of those days.

  9. Piscator says:

    Could it be as simple as the fact that Mary K is not European? It has certainly been said that CERN has, at least informally, nationality quotas for the staff positions in the theory group, based on the nations that fund it. I don’t know anything definite about the politics as far back as 1981, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that there was a political expectation that the permanent staff be from the CERN member states.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    I doubt that was it. Gaillard got her degree from Orsay, and by 1981 had been in France, married to a Frenchman, for nearly 20 years. I don’t see how that could have been the problem, and I don’t think she mentions it as an issue in the book.

  11. Radioactive says:

    It’s a bit tedious to wade through all this 35 year old gossip, and I’m sure there was and still is sexism at CERN, but it sounds just as likely that whoever was in charge didn’t want to have to employ this woman as well as her ex- and new husband, which would be quite disruptive.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    It turns out that Ferrara was hired as a junior staff member in 1981, which had nothing to do with the issue of a senior appointment that year that Gaillard discusses in her book. I’ve thus deleted several comments that discuss him in this context.

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