Science Pioneer

Fay Ajzenberg-SelovePhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Renowned physicist, longtime Penn professor and World War II refugee Fay Ajzenberg-Selove says before her father sent her off to engineering school at the University of Michigan, he taught her one important life skill: How to hold her liquor, so she could hang tough with her male classmates.

He had good reason. As an undergraduate at Michigan and, later, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Ajzenberg-Selove was often the only woman in the classroom—yet she says she was treated with respect by her classmates, and supported in her research by some of her professors, especially as a Ph.D. student.

Ajzenberg-Selove repaid their kindness by going on to become one of the most influential minds in her field. Her principal work on understanding light nuclei, the elements of stars that typically have less than 24 neutrons and protons, remains a global reference for physicists and her research applies even today to energy fusion, carbon dating and nuclear medicine. She has authored hundreds of papers, has been cited more than 6,000 times by the Institute for Scientific Information and has also served as chair of the Commission on Nuclear Physics.

Ajzenberg-Selove was the first woman to study and teach at a number of top universities, including Haverford and Caltech, and came to Penn in 1970, where she taught for many years in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. For her incredible scope of work, Ajzenberg-Selove, Penn professor emerita of physics, was named one of eight recipients of the 2007 National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest scientific honor. “I never expected it.” she says.

Supporting her through most of her outstanding career has been her husband of 52 years, Walter Selove, a renowned physicist himself and emeritus professor of physics at Penn.

“He has been an enormous support,” says Ajzenberg-Selove. “I think that with standard men, if a woman gets a medal, it would be hard on their psyche. Not Wally. He’s just so pleased.”

Q. What got you interested in science?
My father was an engineer. He didn’t have a son, so he decided I would be an engineer and he was wonderful to me. He guided me all the way.
He pushed me to go to the engineering school at the University of Michigan and I was the only girl in the class of 100 men. [The men] were just buddies. They treated me like a younger sister and they took me on their drinking expeditions, but they were respectful, so to speak.
I should explain, also, that the guys taught me how to swear like a stevedore.

Q. You were born in Germany and lived in France. How did you come to the U.S.?
My parents considered themselves Russian, although Dad was born in Warsaw, but it then belonged to Russia. He hated the Communists and when the Revolution came, he got the hell out of there and landed first in Germany where he became a millionaire, having created an investment house.
Then came the Great Depression, and he lost everything and we moved to France when I was four years old, in 1930, and then he became a chemical engineer. He was able to repay his debts and he became an industrialist and became a millionaire once again. Then, what happened was, of course, the Germans walked in and we had to get the hell out, because we were technically Polish Jews.
We left through Spain and Portugal, got visas to go to the Dominican Republic because they were looking for people with technical information, but we had to go through New York and we fell in love with the States, expect for one thing—from the very beginning, we were very unhappy about the racial situation, which we could in no way understand.
We started in the United States with 100 bucks—no money waiting—and Dad became an electrical engineer and founded a manufacturing plant and he was a millionaire once again by the time he died.

Q. He sounds incredibly resourceful.
He was resourceful! He was also a man of the greatest integrity and throughout my life, I think of him every day and I feel I have to live up to him.

Q. You said you were often the only woman in your classes in school. How did your professors treat you?
I don’t think I paid much attention to that. You see, the students were very warm and I don’t recall paying much attention to whether the professors were or not. Then I went to graduate school. I had such a good time and done so badly in college, I made the mistake of going to Columbia as an unmatriculated student and I flunked four courses in physics from people who were or would be Nobel Prize winners. But then I went and taught in a community college and I learned, at least, the first year of physics. And then I went to [the University of] Wisconsin, and things were very different. One of the professors took me on and he guided me. He refused to put his name on joint papers—he did this with all his students, not only me—and he gave me opportunities which I never had before. Also, another of the professors became a lifelong friend and buttressed me. And then there were the wonderful students—the best student in our group who is now a professor at Yale had seven “Be Kind to Fay” days a year. On those days, he would feed me lunch and solve all my problems and be wonderful, but he said more than seven “Be Kind to Fay” days would drive him nuts.
When it came time to get a job, the only jobs open were at women’s colleges, and so I got a one-year appointment to replace somebody who was on leave at Smith. I loved the kids, but there was no opportunity to do research. [As a Ph.D. student], I did research under this wonderful professor which showed that some work done at Caltech was wrong, and so so I got in touch with the guy at Caltech whose work I had shown to be wrong, and he was wonderful—he not only took me on to begin to write a series of papers, which is probably the primary reason I’m getting this prize, but he also didn’t tell his dean that I was a woman, so I was the first woman at Caltech.

Q. Where did you go after Caltech?
I found a job at Boston University and I was able to use the facilities for nuclear physics at MIT and that worked out very well, but then I found my husband. The way it happened was actually really terrific.

Q. How did you meet?
I had a good friend. You have heard, of course, of [Nobel Prize winning physicist] Niels Bohr. His son, Aage Bohr and his then-wife Marietta were good friends of the [Caltech researcher Tom Lauritsen and his wife], my friends at Caltech. So one day Marietta arrived in Cambridge and said I had to get married.
And I said, you’re quite right. And she asked me, which person did I have in mind and I mentioned the name of a physicist we both knew—she told me I was crazy and that she had met Walter Selove the previous evening at a party and he was the guy for me. And she was not going to go back to Denmark until I’d made his acquaintance.
So, I listened to him give a talk and I fell in love with him as he was talking about internal momentum distributions in nuclei, in which I was absolutely uninterested.
Then what I did was very sneaky—I was a member of the Federation of American Scientists and I set up a committee on radiation hazards from tests and I asked him if he would be a member of it and he said yes. I appointed myself and another woman, and he started dating her. But six months later, we were living together and then half a year after that, we got married.

Q. Were the two of you an influence on each other’s work?
No, we are in different fields. And also, we don’t have the same idea about the department or work or anything else, so the only time we worked together was on a semi-political thing in which we discussed a book that had appeared and had the wrong idea about Heisenberg and Bohr. And we knew a few extra things because of Aage Bohr and so we talked about it together in front of other people.

Q. What sort of research did you do in your field?
What I wanted to do is to be useful to my field. So I would write these very long articles with Tom Lauritsen and then without him, roughly 240 pages a year, saying what was the best information on any of the so-called light nuclei. These are nuclei which typically have less than 24 neutrons and protons, and then we would send them to about 250 people throughout the world, with no questions of politics. We sent them to China, to the Soviet Union at the time.
They were very pleased by that. My languages are Russian, French, English [and] I would translate for the Russians because they were the least likely to know any of the other languages. I had helped some of them in England at a meeting and they said I was one of theirs, which I most assuredly was not—I am anti-Communist. Then I went to Russia and approached them to say hello—and they said, I was dangerous. God only knows, I was neither dangerous nor theirs.

Q. You won the Lindback Award for Outstanding Teaching during your time here at Penn. Did you enjoy being in the classroom?
The teaching was what got me emotionally involved. I had magnificent students at Haverford before I came here and had excellent students here. And Wally also participated in this. ... Whenever I didn’t have the answers, because Wally is ten times the physicist I am, if not more, he would help.

Q. Do you consider yourself a feminist or a champion for those who want to go into the sciences?
Oh yes, I am a feminisit. No question. I have given a number of talks on what we should do to be fair to women. By the way, I think one should also be fair to men and if the man is better than the woman, there’s absolutely no question in my mind.

Q. What do you think the environment is like today for women who want to go into the sciences?
When I came [to Penn] there was not a single woman in any department in the College here. Not in English, not in Psychology, where there are lots of good women, not in any field.
So it’s infinitely better! You understand when I came, I was the only one, but now there are about seven or eight women out of 30. Try to get the best people and if they turn out to be women, great.

Originally published Sept. 18, 2008

Originally published on September 18, 2008