Wednesday, March 8 is International Women's Day. The day is about lots of things for women, from voting rights, to being paid a proper wage, to being represented in movies and books by strong characters. But at its core, the day is about the idea that society is better off when women are treated as equals to men.
To help celebrate—and to offer proof of what we all miss out on when women aren't given equal opportunity and respect—we'd like you to meet someone. Her name is Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski, and she is kind of a genius. And we don't mean, chew-gum-while-doing-handstands-and-reciting-the-first-page-of-Harry-Potter-backwards genius. We're talking about building-a-plane-when-you-are-14 genius. About physics-legend-Stephen-Hawking-is-referencing-your-work-in-his-paper genius.
Like, genius genius.
Hi there! I built a plane!
So where did it all begin? Pasterski first came to people's attention when she walked into MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to get an airplane that she had built approved for flight. This happens a lot at MIT. It's part of what they do. But what doesn't happen so often is them approving the design of a 14 year-old girl. (Who had already performed a solo flight by this time, too!) Here she is back then, talking about her plane on a Chicago news program (it starts around 1:46).
In short, the alarm bells went off that this was someone very special. The top professors at MIT (which is one of the world's top schools) were alerted, and Pasterski's intellectual career hit the fast lane. Now, nine years later, she has already completed degrees at MIT and Harvard, and is studying some of the most complex problems known to humankind.
But just what does a study of physics give us?
Physics fast track
Physics isn't an easy thing to understand, but it relates to everything. It is the study of how matter (as in everything from atoms to rocks to comets to stars) interact with and move through space and time. That means how water flows and how objects move through air. It also means how stars are born and what happens at the centre of a galaxy!
Some of the most brilliant people in history have dedicated themselves to trying to understand physics better. The biggest names such as Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, or Nikola Tesla, have helped us understand and control things like electricity, gravity, magnetism, and tons more. Without them, pretty much every piece of technology doesn't exist. We're built on their brains.
Unlocking the potential
The other thing you notice when examining a list of famous physicists? They're almost all men. That's part of what makes the story of Sabrina Pasterski so important. At only 23, professors who have been studying physics for decades are overwhelmed by her potential. Stephen Hawking, who is considered the brightest mind in physics alive, cited three papers (or studies) that Pasterski authored or co-authored in his own January 2016 paper.
Pasterski herself is humbled by all of this attention. And she knows that just because a bunch of people call you "the next Einstein" doesn't guarantee anything. She just loves physics, and appreciates the gift of being able to think about it full time. Plus, she travels the world to give lectures about it in front of excited audiences.
But what is most important to remember—on this day or any other—is that she's being given the opportunity. And if the day does come when calling someone a "Pasterski" means "you're a genius", we'll all know why it happened! Good luck, Sabrina!