Berkeley Physics Highlights Mary K. Gaillard as part of "150 Years of Women at Berkeley"

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Mary K. Gaillard's distinguished career began in the 1960s. From 1964 to 1981 she was a research scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, and also a visiting scientist at CERN in Geneva. In 1981, she became the first woman to join the Berkeley physics faculty. At the same time she became a faculty senior staff member at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (Berkeley Lab), serving as head of its Particle Theory Group from 1985-87. Retired since 2009, she is now a professor of the Graduate School at UC Berkeley and a visiting scientist at Berkeley Lab.

Gaillard has earned high regard not only for her scientific accomplishments but also for her courage and perseverance in the face of gender bias and her continuous efforts toward opening up opportunities for women in the sciences. She has written and spoken about the “determined antifeminism” she experienced while at CERN where, despite her accomplishments, she was never offered a staff position. She was the first person to address gender imbalance at that institution: in 1980, for International Women’s Day, she published an essay about how women in scientific careers at CERN viewed their professional status. The essay became an important resource for eventual development of CERN's Equal Opportunities Program. 

Colleague and fellow Berkeley physicist Lawrence Hall says of Gaillard's career, “In 1974, just as the pieces of the Standard Model were being put together, she made seminal discoveries connecting it to key puzzles in the experimental data. She showed that a variety of rare phenomena associated with kaon particles could be described by the proposed theory of weak interactions, but only if the hypothetical charm quark had a mass that was well within reach of planned experiments. Furthermore, other puzzles of kaon decays could be understood using the newly proposed theory of strong interactions. This greatly strengthened the evidence for the Standard Model, especially when later that year particles containing the charm quark were discovered.”

Hall continues, “She made the first systematic studies of both charmed particles and the Higgs boson before they were discovered, with implications for key experimental searches. After a paper on gluon jets that led to experimental confirmation of the gluon, Mary K. turned her attention to schemes that unified the forces of nature, elucidating the properties of grand unified theories, speculating early on how the forces could be embedded in supergravity, and finally examining how they might arise from string theory. In a career spanning over half a century, Mary K. was on the forefront of new particle theories, keeping them anchored to experimental data.”


In 2015, a memoir describing Gaillard's career, A Singularly Unfeminine Profession: One Woman's Journey in Physics, was published by World Scientific. Gaillard says she wrote the book “because I wanted to convey the difficulties I had as a woman in such a male-dominated field. And I wanted to convey the joy of doing physics. I have the good luck that my career spanned the entire period of the standard model from its inception to its verification with the discovery of the Higgs particle. And I had a lot of fun.”

This September, colleagues, students, and friends gathered in downtown Berkeley for a two-day symposium celebrating Mary K. Gaillard and her brilliant career in theoretical particle physics. The Symposium – From Charm to Strings – was sponsored by the Heising-Simons Foundation and featured invited talks by scientists from around the world, including Beate Heinemann of the DESY accelerator center in Germany, Nima Arkani-Hamed of Princeton, and Lisa Randall of Harvard.

Today Berkeley Physics salutes Mary K. Gaillard as part of the campus-wide celebration honoring 150 Years of Women at Berkeley.

Devi Mathieu
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