Science Scene: Cosmological spacetime, 'dark energy', and women in physics

Physicist Jennie Traschen helps diversify her field on an international stage

Science Scene: Cosmological spacetime, 'dark energy', and women in physics
November 9, 2018

In Jennie Traschen's world, filling a room with 35% women is a big deal. That's because her field—theoretical physics—averages about 10% female representation. And that's why she traveled to Sweden to push to get both those numbers higher. Much higher. Traschen, along with others who share her concerns, organized the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics workshop on Cosmology and Gravitational Physics with Lambda.

What happened in Stockholm?

The workshop offered a forum for lively and in-depth discussion of current research and open questions in theoretical classical and quantum gravity. Critical current issues addressed included finding viable models for Inflation and for the observed “dark energy” filling our universe; fundamental properties of black holes and cosmological spacetimes, and progress in holography applied to cosmology and condensed matter systems. 

Almost a century ago Einstein proposed a game-changing addition to his theory of general relativity: Lambda (Λ), the cosmological constant. Today, understanding the role of Λ is one of the deepest open problems in theoretical physics and cosmology. The questions include: What was the very early universe like? What is the structure of space and time on the smallest length scales?

People have always looked at the night sky and wondered. The research engaged in at the Lambda workshop probes questions on the boundaries of our physical understanding of the universe.

Tell us about the 35%

In a field that is about 10% women, we were successful in including 35% women, with a total of 75 participants over 3 weeks. This large number of women had a clear positive effect on the tone of the workshop, creating a positive and welcoming atmosphere, which in turn facilitated a critical but respectful scientific discussion.

What is the biggest challenge to women in physics today?

I think that the biggest (but not the only big) problem is what I call the invisible/negligible person effect. Physics research is both a collaborative and a single-person endeavor. Physicists learn from each other, and develop successful ideas and calculations by exchanging ideas. Inclusion vs. incidental exclusion is a key component to creative productivity. And I hope this workshop helped to erode the invisible/negligible person effect—and not only for those involved.