An interview with an inspiring particle physicist from Pune who 'happens to be a woman'

An interview with an inspiring particle physicist from Pune who 'happens to be a woman'
Rohini Godbole's work on high energy photons could form the basis for the next generation of particle colliders, according to the Indian Department of BiotechnologyBI India
  • Rohini Godbole, a particle physicist, holds the Padma Shri — the highest civilian honour in India — as dearer because it is "like your parents patting you on the back."
  • In an interview with Business Insider, Godbole reveals that in the 1960s, girls were never taught general science till Class 7. Instead, they were taught home science.
  • She emphasises the importance of studying particle physics since it has given us lasers, semiconductors and the Internet.
Particle physicist, Professor Rohini Godbole, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2019 and the French National Order of Merit in January 2021, is not very excited when people laud her for her achievements as a ‘woman’. She would rather be called a physicist who ‘happens to be a woman’.

The 68-year-old Godbole is best known for her work at European Organization for Nuclear Research, popularly known as CERN, in Switzerland. Her work on high energy photons could form the basis for the next generation of particle colliders, says the Indian Department of Biotechnology.

An interview with an inspiring particle physicist from Pune who 'happens to be a woman'
Particle physicist, Professor Rohini Godbole, won the Padma Shri award in 2019BI India

You can watch excerpts from the entire interview or read the edited transcript below:


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Ahead of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, Business Insider reached out to the inspiring scientist from Pune to get the story of her interest and career in science."In my 11th grade, my school had asked for an essay titled 'The reforms that may be made in my school'. And, I remember I wrote in my essay that they should start teaching science from Class 5 and not Class 7 or 8 because, otherwise, in the competitive exams we are at a disadvantage. And, believe it or not, the school accepted it," she told Business Insider.

Godbole holds the Padma Shri, the highest civilian honour in India, as dearer because it is "like your parents patting you on the back." Women in India who have been conferred with the Padma Shri award usually come from the fields of art and music, medicine, health, and social work.

However, Godbole is a rare case where the work of a woman from science has been recognised. She shares this space with literally a handful of achievers like botanist Janaki Ammal, neuroscientist Vijayalakshmi Ravidranath and immunologist Indira Nath.

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An interview with an inspiring particle physicist from Pune who 'happens to be a woman'
Rohini Godbole shares the space of science with only a handful of other achievers like botanist Janaki Ammal, neuroscientist Vijayalakshmi Ravidranath and immunologist Indira NathBI India

Tell us about your childhood, your school life, and how and why did you choose this field of particle physics?
I grew up in what one would call a typical middle-class family. But, they had always set a very high value on education. And, I grew up in Pune, which is in Maharashtra. It used to be called — at least once upon a time — the Oxbridge of India. So, it's a city well-known for its education.

I studied in an all-girls school, which was perhaps the first English high school that was also a girls’ high school founded in Maharashtra — perhaps even in India.

We were never taught general science, till 7th class. We were only taught home science. And, in 7th grade there used to be a scholarship called the State Merit Scholarship examination in which there used to be one paper on general science.
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Since I used to be pretty good in mathematics, my teachers actually took the trouble of working after hours with me. And that's when I started learning science.

In fact, at the time, one of my class teacher’s husband — who was a science teacher — offered that I could talk to him in the evenings at his home, and he introduced me to many things outside the books in science. He taught me to read science magazines, and then I started taking part in science essay competitions because of him.

This is how my science interest began.
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How does it feel to be among one of the few dozen women said this to win international accolade and recognition in the scientific field?
OK, you know, I really wish people would stop thinking of us women scientists as women scientists. We happen to be scientists who happen to be women. But, I really look forward to the day when one is not slotted as a woman scientist. This is just my feeling and hope that I'm trying to express.

But yes, I think I'm quite happy. Of course, I'm happy on a personal level. You don't do research for getting recognition. You do research for the joy of it.
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I think women getting these awards does have an additional plus side to it. It tells young girls that there is nothing special about it. That no, gender does not, and cannot play a role in it. A man and a woman can equally really get the honour. And, to me, that is actually one of the very best things that happens when women get awards.
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Why don't you tell us a little bit about your field of study?
That's a question dear to my heart because that's what I've been doing for the last 50 years. Firstly doing it, then teaching it and finally doing research in it.

The general subject that I'm working on is what we can call particle physics. And, the other word for the same subject is high energy physics.
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This is really kind of a study of what are the most fundamental constituents of nature and how those constituents are put together. The subject is somehow very interesting and very difficult to unravel at the same time because it's like completing a puzzle made out of Lego pieces. You want to understand what is the size and shape of the different Lego pieces which make the whole. And we're not allowed to take things apart, right? That is, to some extent, the nature of the work.
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The point is that efforts that have gone on trying to understand this have given us, for example, lasers, the Internet as well as semiconductors.

Therefore, this kind of journey is at the heart of all matter. It has been going on for centuries, actually, almost two centuries. It has produced byproducts for our technology just because some of the things people have investigated, they have done it just for the heck of it.

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Then, what is the one piece of advice or word of caution that you would like to share with girls aspiring to join the scientific community?
There is no word of caution. I mean frankly, I think whether you are studying science arts, or commerce, gender is not an issue — ever. Your gender cannot play a role in this. What plays a role is your intellectual abilities and your interest.

There is nothing special about studying science compared to studying history. Each has its value. Each has its interest. And, one should just follow one's own mind. That is the one piece of advice I would give — that follow your own mind. Don't let others tell you whether maths is not for you or physics is not for you.

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