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Quantum Forces: Helen Quinn

Updated: Jan 27

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. Today it's going to be about an outstanding physicist and educator – Helen Quinn.


Helen Quinn was born in 1943 in Melbourne, Australia into a family with three brothers. She attended an all-girls elementary school that used progressive ways to teach science. There, she discovered her love for mathematics and physics. After she had graduated from Tintern Grammar, she went on to study meteorology at the University of Melbourne. Two years later, she moved to The United States, transferred to Stanford University, and changed her major to physics, which was at the time a very unusual field for a woman.

In 1967, Helen received her Ph.D. and went to Hamburg to do postdoctoral work at the German Synchrotron Laboratory. She spent seven years at Harvard University and then returned to Stanford University to work as a professor in the SLAC Theory Group at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and later she became a full professor at Stanford.

Throughout her career, Helen made several major contributions to the world of physics. Collaborating with Howard Georgi and Steven Weinberg, Quinn studied the three quantum forces: electromagnetic – binding electrons to atoms, strong – affecting particles inside the nucleus of an atom, and weak – responsible for radioactive decay. Through their research, they discovered that these three forces, which behave very differently in the world around us, act very similarly in extremely high-energy processes. This could mean that the three fundamental forces are actually just three aspects of a single force, bringing us one step closer to the Theory of Everything.

Her work with Roberto Peccei resulted in the Peccei-Quinn theory, which explains why the strong force can but the weak force can't maintain the symmetry between matter and antimatter (CP-symmetry). Along with getting closer to the Theory of Everything, their theory also produced a prediction of the existence of axions. These fundamental particles are now the leading candidates for dark matter, another great mystery in physics.

Helen also explained how the physics of quarks can be used to predict some aspects of hadrons – the quark-hadron duality.

In 2004, Helen was the president of the American Physical Society, the fourth woman in its history to hold the position.

Besides physics, Helen was also passionate about education issues and bettering the ways that children were taught science in schools. In 2010, she retired from physics to focus on improving the school system. She was the co-founder and the first president of the Contemporary Physics Education Project and as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, she joined the Board of Science Education of the National Research Council. She worked on the Next Generation Science Standards and after its release she supported its development, adoption, and implementation.

Helen Quinn is an outstanding physicist who discovered important puzzle pieces to the Theory of Everything. Even though her love for physics was strong, she saw problems in the ways that children were taught science and decided to step in herself. Even after retirement, she continues to look for better ways of introducing the STEM fields to children, making sure the next generations will strive for even greater discoveries than the ones before.






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