Thursday, October 27, 2016

MARIA POPOVA - How Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

NB: A comment by a close friend who is also a physicist: Yes this is sadly true. Meitner was a great physicist but everyone remembers only Hahn. And lest one thinks that the situation is much better now, either here or overseas, the problem remains. Women scientists are not treated as equals. Call it male bonding, or anything. I remember, even in Berkeley, we had i think 4 women in our Phd class of 40 odd people. And except one, all of them finally left physics, though possibly for different reasons. But i remember, when all of us males used to be working late night in our office on our problems, and one of the women would come in, there would be an uncomfortable silence. 

Of course, some of them are strong enough and driven enough to make a name for themselves- but it is precisely these exceptions that prove the rule. In the US for instance, there is Lisa Randall who has also written some popular books. She is combative, aggressive and all the rest and gives it back as well as anybody. There are several others- actually for some reason, woman seem to be doing better in the life sciences than in the physical sciences or math (there is, to my knowledge one woman Fields medalist in Maths- the Iranian mathematician now at Stanford). In India, the situation is pretty similar. The number of woman scientists in top notch research institutes is abysmally low. And this despite the fact that the ratio of male to female in our Phd course in DU is almost 60-40 - DS

How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

As her career was taking off, the Nazis began usurping Europe... In 1938, just as the three scientists were performing their most visionary experiments, Nazi troops marched into Austria. Meitner refused to hide her Jewish heritage. Her only remaining option was to leave, but the Nazis had already put anti-Semitic laws in place prohibiting university professors from exiting the country. On July 13, with the help of Hahn and a few other scientist friends, Meitner made a narrow escape across the Dutch border. From Holland, she migrated to Denmark, where she stayed with her friend Niels Bohr. She finally found a permanent home at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Sweden. (Three centuries earlier, Descartes, supreme champion of reason, had also fled to Sweden to avoid the Inquisition after witnessing the trial of Galileo.)

In the fall of 1946, a South African little girl aspiring to be a scientist wrote to Einstein and ended her letter with a self-conscious entreatment: “I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!” Einstein responded with words of assuring wisdom that resonate to this day: “I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.”
And yet reasons don’t always come from reason. The history of science, like the history of the world itself, is the history of unreasonable asymmetries of power, the suppressive consequences of which have meant that the comparatively few women who rose to the top of their respective field did so due to inordinate brilliance and tenacity.

Among the most outstanding yet under-celebrated of these pioneering women is the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who led the team that discovered nuclear fission but was excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery, and whose story I first encountered in Alan Lightman’s illuminating 1990 book The Discoveries. This diminutive Jewish woman, who had barely saved her own life from the Nazis, was heralded by Einstein as the Marie Curie of the German-speaking world. She is the subject of the excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library) by chemist, science historian, and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Lewin Sime.

In in Vienna a little more than a year after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science across the Atlantic, admonished the first class of female astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Although Meitner showed a gift for mathematics from an early age, there was little correlation between aptitude and opportunity for women in 19th-century Europe. At the end of her long life, she would recount, not bitterly but wistfully:

Thinking back to … the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.

Sime herself, who spent decades as the only woman at her university department, captures the broader cultural necessity of telling Meitner’s story: “I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire; under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.” She writes of Meitner’s Sisyphean rise to stature:

Her schooling in Vienna ended when she was fourteen, but a few years later, the university admitted women, and she studied physics under the charismatic Ludwig Boltzmann. As a young woman she went to Berlin without the slightest prospects for a future in physics, but again she was fortunate, finding a mentor and friend in Max Planck and a collaborator in Otto Hahn, a chemist just her age. Together Meitner and Hahn made names for themselves in radioactivity, and then in the 1920s Meitner went on, independent of Hahn, into nuclear physics, an emerging field in which she was a pioneer. In the Berlin physics community she was, as Einstein liked to say, “our Marie Curie”; among physicists everywhere, she was regarded as one of the great experimentalists of her day… The painfully shy young woman had become an assertive professor — “short, dark, and bossy,” her nephew would tease — and although at times she was haunted by the insecurity of her youth, she never doubted that physics was worth it…read more:
More on nuclear issues