2020 was a good year. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technique. Andrea Ghez, the physicist, jointly with Roger Penrose and Reinhard Genzel, for the discovery of a supermassive, compact object at the center of our galaxy, and Louise Glück, the literary scholar, for her characteristic poetic voice, which, with its austere beauty, defines the universal individual existence . 2009 was even a record year with five out of nine Nobel Prizes being awarded! Apart from these two vintages, however, women are conspicuous by their absence from the list of the most prestigious awards: 58 Nobel Prize winners against 885 men since 1901! The troupe of the Compagnie des Ondes has decided to do them justice by dedicating to them “Nobelles”, a play in the form of a “ceremony for those forgotten by the Nobel Prize”.
In science, this imbalance is known as the “Matilda effect,” which consists of a systematic denial of women’s contribution to scientific research. As a result, their work is often co-opted or even plundered by their male colleagues. This effect, which bears the first name of American feminist activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, was theorized in 1993 by American historian of science Margaret Rossiter.
To stage it and try to open conscience to this problem, the dramatic work proposes awarding prizes in three categories during a fictitious ceremony: “La nobelle transvestie”, “La nobelle shackled” and “La noble shackled”. “The Nobel Stole”. For each of them there are three female scientists. What are these categories? The first concerns women who had to disguise themselves as men in order to carry out their scientific work. The second are those who, for various reasons but mainly because of the male gender, have seen their work minimized, underappreciated, slowed down. The third brings together women who have seen their results stolen by men who took credit for it.
This is an opportunity to discover or rediscover the careers of women scientists, often extraordinary and courageous. Some are well known, like mathematician Sophie Germain, physicist (and wife of Albert Einstein) Mileva Marić, physical chemist Rosalind Franklin. Others less. An example ? In the “Stolen Nobelle” category, Marthe Gautier succeeded in showing the cause of trisomy 21, in this case an extra chromosome in the twenty-first pair. However, the researcher Jérôme Lejeune offers him to take pictures in a better equipped laboratory… and takes the opportunity to treat himself to the discovery. The deception is discovered decades later.
Inspired by existing ceremonies, the play alternates between interviews, nominee presentations, awards ceremonies and speeches by honored guests. Beautiful people including native African plants specialist Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, Hollywood star and WiFi pioneer Hedy Lamarr and botanist Janaki Ammal.
But the show goes beyond that single rehabilitation by playing with the codes with humor. The glamor and glitz side that is often only associated with femininity contrasts with the value of the work presented that is done by women. Furthermore, as the ceremony progresses, grains of sand disrupt the beautiful mechanics of the show by interactively inviting the viewer to question themselves, for example, about the merits of the idea of awarding the prize to the question of competition in science.
The Nobel Prize is unfortunately no exception, and for other plays the Compagnie des Ondes might look for prizes just as popular and monopolized by men as the Fields Medal in Mathematics, the Prizker Prize in Architecture, the Turing Prize in Informatics …