Corralling the Light Elements: The Nuclear Spectroscopy of Fay Ajzenberg-Selove (Women in Science 41)

In the opening days of the Nazi attack on France, a Jewish engineer took his family aside and instructed them on how to commit suicide by slitting their wrists, explaining that death by one’s own hand was more honorable than what would happen to them if they fell to the enemy. As the family fled from town to town, desperate to escape Europe and the Nazi juggernaut, the engineer’s daughter, Fay Ajzenberg (1926-2012), just fourteen years old, lived every day with the prospect of having to taking her own life come nightfall.

Sadly, the ominous specter of suicide was a familiar one already to the girl. Her mother was an emotionally volatile woman who would describe to the young Fay in detail how she was planning to kill herself, probably in Fay’s room. The six year old who heard the minutiae of her own mother’s suicide plans became the teenager who knew nothing so surely as that she would die a teenager still, and by her own hand.

But fate had a way of tossing the Ajzenbergs about between miraculous and horrid fortune. In the Russian Revolution, her father had to hold up a train at gunpoint to get his family out of the country, only to settle in Germany just in time for the rising tide of anti-Semitism to push him onward to France, where he had no sooner started to settle than the German tanks over-ran any hope of a normal life. And yet, they Ajzenbergs were not captured and, through a series of unlikely events, even managed to book passage to Santo Domingo, where engineers where desperately needed, via New York.

Arriving in New York, the family quite sensibly decided that it might be best to stay there and just give the whole Santo Domingo leg of the trip a miss. They had connections amongst the established Jewish community in America, and Fay’s father started up a motor company that would steadily grow into a moderate giant over the next two decades. Meanwhile, there was Fay. Caught between the brilliant and exciting world of her father, and the emotionally damaging outbursts of her mother, Fay naturally modeled herself on the former, and decided on a career in science.



This began a series of truly titanic failures that would have leveled any lesser of a person. It seemed that, every science class Fay put her hand to, she bombed miserably. Her memoirs are a catalogue of courses taken and failed, C averages across all classes being just barely scratched out, professors encouraging her spirit but lamenting her results. In high school, in college, even at the graduate school she somehow managed to attend in spite of her scholastic record, she crashed with phenomenal regularity. Chemistry, draftsmanship, quantum physics, electrical engineering … all grand exercises in abject failure.

Most of us would have taken the universe’s subtle hints and moved on to less demanding fields, but Ajzenberg was determined to be a scientist and, in fact, as she had more opportunities to DO science rather than to take an endless number of tests ABOUT science, she found she had a gift for it. She was fascinated by cosmic rays, and spent a stretch of time on a frozen mountain cosmic ray station where water was so dear that the toilets featured alarms that went off whenever you closed the door in an attempt to make you think twice about whether you really needed to go. Unfortunately, however, cosmic ray facilities were few and far between, and Ajzenberg had to switch to a more accessible field, and chose the study of the light elements.

After some promising early work discovering a method to synthesize pure lithium-6 from lithium-6 sulphate, she wrote to Caltech’s Tom Lauritsen and offered to revise a previous article of his, a roundup of everything that had been written up to then about the energy levels of the light elements. He agreed, and Ajzenberg headed to California to collaborate on the rewrite and to become the physicist she was meant to be.

This was Caltech in the 1950s, a place where, as likely as not, Richard Feynman would pop into your office and talk for four hours about his latest physical insights, making the most complex of ideas mystifyingly simple to grasp. For somebody who still felt academically shaky, it was the best place to be, and she found herself supported on all sides by people willing to share their ideas. And, in the meantime, there was the gargantuan task of preparing the update to Lauritsen’s review of the light elements. It was a massive project, requiring Ajzenberg to read hundreds and thousands of articles announcing new measurements for different excitation states of various isotopes, and to use her knowledge of established results (and, eventually, experience of each lab’s track record and reputation) to ascertain the worth of each study.

She set to work to record the known energy levels on massive sheets of paper which lined the halls at Caltech, and which she’d update as new data came in. She was the nerve center for the entire world’s efforts in quantifying and understand the behavior of the light elements, and she would remain so for the next thirty-eight years. That first review was eighty pages long at the final cut, but soon the Lauritsen-Ajzenberg articles ballooned to hundreds of pages until, by the time of her retirement, she could say that her work on cataloguing the light elements alone ran to over five thousand pages of the most referenced and useful information available to the nuclear physics community.

Young Fay Ajzenberg
Young Fay Ajzenberg

To read through thousands of papers took stamina. To sift them for relative worth and plausibility took insight and experience. And if she had done nothing else but tirelessly put out that inestimable review for four decades, it would be enough to earn our continued thanks, but of course she did more than that. Because she saw the collected work of the light element community, she knew where holes existed, and devoted her efforts to designing and running experiments to fill those holes. Often lacking adequate facilities at the colleges she taught at, she was able to borrow time on the cyclotrons and electrostatic generators of larger institutions, her massive web of acquaintance happily allowing her to use whatever she needed.

In fact, for the first half of her life, her career was remarkably absent of any smear of sexism. Wherever she went, she was instantly accepted as another One of the Guys, her talent recognized and rewarded in spite of her abysmal academic record. She acquired funding easily through the government, and generally found work that had just the balance of teaching, research, and committee time that she found most rewarding. Where Goeppert-Mayer slogged and toiled to maintain unpaid and unofficial positions, Ajzenberg won Guggenheim scholarships to study wherever she wanted, and whatever she thought was interesting.

It wasn’t until 1972 that discrimination powerfully raised its head. After counseling a distraught and brilliant grad student who was told by her physics advisor to settle down and have babies before thinking about a career in physics, Ajzenberg resolved to take a more public role in arguing for the position of women in physics. She, somewhat brazenly, applied for a tenured position at the University of Pennsylvania without having been nominated for it, and when she was turned down for not being “active enough” in nuclear physics, she prepared a master list of article citations which showed that her work was referenced more than anybody in her department save for one Nobel Prize winner. She brought her case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and sued the school for discrimination, and won.

The time invested in fighting the case was massive, the risk to her career was likewise immense, but in the end she won, and once in the door, she found herself as easily accepted as she had been everywhere else, except now she had some ability to affect larger change in how the university, and the physics community generally, approached the young female physicists clamoring for a voice.

Teaching, research, pushing for the greater inclusion of women in science, and hopping about the world to bring the global physics community together in the face of the Cold War, these were all daunting enough tasks for the healthiest of people, but Ajzenberg was, from her mid-forties onward, always in danger of complete physical collapse. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she underwent an operation that removed one breast, only to lose the other years later after a grueling chemotherapy regimen which gave her cancer of the bladder several years later still. Repeatedly operated on, pumped full of chemicals, and undertaking the jobs of four or five normal people simultaneously, she yet lived a magnificently full life, resigning her research in 1989 and her seminal summaries of the light nuclei in 1990, then going on to live another twenty-two years as an advocate for women’s science, winning the National Medal of Science in 2008, and privately all the while enjoying the songs of Vysotsky, spoken in the language she learned as a child, a half a world, and a full lifetime away.


FURTHER READING: For the first half, Ajzenberg-Selove’s memoir, A Matter of Choices (1994), is one of the most interesting and unique science autobiographies to be had. It is brutally frank in admitting the profound depth of her academic failure, and refreshingly direct in its portrayal of her conversion to atheism, and her assessment of the political foibles of her time. The second half drifts a bit, but then the second half of most scientists’ memoirs are rather drifty, becoming a catalogue of committee responsibilities and international science congresses that are crucial for the advancement of science, but make for sloooooooow reading.

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