Before Helen Quinn was a famous theoretical physicist, she thought about becoming a teacher. Now, in the second act of her career, she has come full circle, helping to craft the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 17 states plus the District of Columbia. But her path to becoming both a world-class physicist and a leader of science education reform was one she almost didn’t take.

Quanta Magazine


Original story reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine, an editorially independent division of the Simons Foundation whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences

Quinn, who is now 73, grew up in Australia, where she had to decide on an academic focus by her sophomore year in high school. Her father was an engineer, and family conversations often revolved around how things work. “The kind of problem solving that I recommend as useful for learning science was part of our family culture,” she said.

She recalled how a high school teacher encouraged her to become a mathematician, telling her, “Because you’re so lazy, you will never solve a problem the hard way. You always have to figure out a clever way.” But in the 1950s, she said, “the idea that a woman could be an engineer was nonexistent. I once walked into the engineering school at the University of Melbourne, and one guy said, ‘Look what’s got in here,’ and the other one says, ‘You think it’s real?’”

After Quinn transferred to Stanford University in 1962, her adviser encouraged her to consider graduate school, even though, as he explained, “graduate schools are usually reluctant to accept women because they get married and they don’t finish. But I don’t think we need to worry about that with you.” Which made her wonder: “Is he telling me I’m never going to get married?”

Helen Quinn in her Stanford Linear Accelerator Center office around 1977.

Quinn applied to graduate school, but she hedged her bets. “There were no women in the faculty at Stanford at that time in the physics department,” she said. “I didn’t see myself there.” She thought she would “apply for Ph.D. programs because good universities don’t offer master’s degrees in physics, but really I’d do a master’s degree and then go take education courses and be a high school teacher.”

Instead, she went on to make seminal contributions to our understanding of basic particle interactions. In the 1970s, she worked with Roberto Peccei on a proposed solution to the strong charge-parity (CP) problem. The puzzle has to do with why a kind of symmetry between matter and antimatter is broken in weak interactions, which drive nuclear decay, but not in strong interactions, which hold matter together. Peccei and Quinn’s solution, known as the Peccei-Quinn mechanism, implies a new kind of symmetry that predicts the existence of an “axion” field, and thus a hypothetical axion particle. Axions have been invoked in theories of supersymmetry and cosmic inflation, and have been proposed as a candidate for dark matter. Physicists are searching high and low for the elusive particle.

Her work on the strong CP problem and other contributions to particle physics have been recognized with prestigious awards including the Dirac Medal, the J.J. Sakurai Prize, the Klein Medal and the Compton Medal. Meanwhile her attention has shifted back to science education. Starting in the late 1980s she led the science education outreach effort at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and she later chaired the National Research Council’s Board on Science Education, which developed the framework that led to the Next Generation Science Standards. Quanta Magazine caught up with Quinn at last year’s International Teacher-Scientist Partnership Conference in San Francisco. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

QUANTA MAGAZINE: What was it like entering the field of particle physics in the 1960s?

HELEN QUINN: It was a very exciting time. The thing we now call the Standard Model was just beginning to take shape, and SLAC had just been built at Stanford. In fact, the reason I became a particle physicist is probably because there were so many people around me who were so excited about the science. But I never at any point said, “I’m going to be a physicist. That’s what I want to do.” It just sort of grew on me as I learned more about it.

You did a year of student teaching.

I did my Ph.D. in four years, and it was an interesting piece of work that got noticed. During graduate school, I’d married. My husband was another physicist, and we took postdocs in Germany. Coming back, my husband was offered a faculty position at Tufts, and I said, “Well, if there’s any town in the country where there ought to be another job, it’s Boston because there are seven universities in the Boston area, or probably more.” But I didn’t get a job.

I thought, “OK, I’ll fall back and I’ll be a teacher,” and I took education courses at Tufts and did the student teaching.

Then what happened?

During that semester when I was doing the student teaching, I happened to run into one of my graduate school friends, Joel Primack, who was then a junior fellow at Harvard, and he said, “Why don’t you come talk to us at Harvard sometime?” At that moment, a piece of research came along which was really fundamental to the development of the Standard Model. Gerard ’t Hooft and Martinus Veltman [who shared the 1999 Nobel Prize in physics] provided a method for calculating the mathematics in gauge theories, which underlie the Standard Model. So I started working with my friend and one other junior faculty member at Harvard, Tom Appelquist, on applying that method to what we call one-loop calculation.

Before the Standard Model, there was a problem with weak interaction theory. You could do the first-order calculation, but the next order (the one-loop calculation) was infinite. So the theory was not well-defined and not stable. We did the first finite one-loop calculation of weak interactions using the new theory. At that point I realized this is drawing me in more than the teaching.

You didn’t like teaching?

I loved the teaching. I hated supervising study hall and the intellectual atmosphere of the high school. So it was not the teaching that put me off as much as it was the intellectual draw of something really exciting going on directly in my field, in my area of interest in physics, that basically was the beginning of the development of the Standard Model. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down.

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