Monday, October 27, 2008

Lise Meitner Remembered -- the 40th Anniversary of her Death

"She is our Marie Curie"

Albert Einstein

High praise from a high authority. And Einstein knew whereof he spoke. He knew both women personally and he knew their work.

Today, October 27, 2008, marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Lise Meitner. She became in her lifetime, and still ranks as, one of Germany's greatest physicists...better said, one of the world's great physicists. She played a key role, perhaps the pivotal role, in the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 and 1939, and in so doing became known for a time as the Mother of the Nuclear Age and, sometimes, the Mother of the Atomic Bomb. She was asked to come to the U.S. and work on the Manhattan Project, but she refused because she considered it a perversion of her science. She died in 1968 in Cambridge, England, just a few days short of her 90th birthday.

Meitner was born in Vienna on either November 7 or November 17, 1878 -- no one seems sure. She was ethnically Jewish but was baptized a protestant in 1908 and remained one throughout the rest of her life. In 1906 she became only the second woman to receive a doctorate in physics from the University 0f Vienna. There was little future for a woman physicist in Austria, so in 1907 she departed for Berlin, then the vital center of German physics. She began by attending lectures by, and then serving as assistant to, the great Max Planck, but was soon introduced to a young chemist by the name of Otto Hahn. They hit if off and began a collaboration in radioactivity, she doing the physics and he doing the chemistry, that endured off and on until July 1938 when she was forced to flee from Nazi Germany. Even then it continued in correspondence and one secret meeting in Copenhagen until January 1939.

What is remarkable to an observer in the current age, looking back upon the dark ages of gender equality, is how irresistibly Meitner seems to have bubbled to the surface of the physics community in Berlin and indeed in all Europe notwithstanding the pervasive prejudice of most of the men in that community against women in science. She endured professional and personal obstacles to her career of the most absurd and inexcusable variety: for example, when she began working with Hahn she was required by Emil Fischer, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, to work only in a basement room with a separate entrance, no toilet facilities and no access to the laboratories upstairs. Worse yet, for many years she had to work without pay and without academic status because the Prussian university and research institute system had no places for women. This photo of Lise at the Summer Physics Colloquium at Niels Bohr's Physics Institute in Copenhagen in 1935 illustrates what she was up against (Max Born and Werner Heisenberg are with her in the front row):

Although her official academic status was lowly, Meitner's brilliance was evidently widely recognized and she inexorably became one of the elite physicists in Europe. Just consider the list of some of the physicists with whom she had professional and sometimes personal relationships: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Max von Laue, Wolfgang Pauli, James Franck, Neils Bohr, Max Born, Erwin Schroedinger, Werner Heisenberg, James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Irene Curie.

The embedded backwardness of turn-of-the-century Prussian civilization gradually gave way through the 20's to more egalitarian values and in 1926 Lise became the first woman physics professor in Germany. She was by then so advanced in her standing in the scientific community that the requirement of an Habilitation thesis was waived -- she had already written and published more than 40 papers.

A Daring Harrowing Flight from Nazi Germany

Although Meitner lived and worked exclusively in Berlin from from 1907 until 1938 she remained an Austrian citizen until March 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and all Austrians became Germans whether they liked it or not. By early 1938 it was clear that Lise's position as an ethnic Jew, notwithstanding that she was in practice a Lutheran, was becoming fatal to her career and her personal safety. Alarm for her safety spread among her colleagues across Europe until finally two Dutchmen, Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, both of them physicists, devised a daring and dangerous plan for her escape from Germany. Meitner had, of course, no valid passport for travel and had no permission to leave Germany. Her Austrian passport was useless after the Anschluss and she had not been issued a German passport. It was therefore entirely illegal for her to depart Germany with no intention of returning.

On the morning of Wednesday July 13, 1938, Meitner was driven to the train station in Berlin by Paul Rosebaud, editor of Der Naturwissenschaften. She was in a state of terror and almost backed out at the last moment. The plan was for her to board a lightly traveled train bound for Groningen in Holland which would cross the Dutch-German border at the small resort town of Nieuweschwans. It was the northernmost border rail crossing between Germany and Holland. When she boarded the train she had the clothes on her back, a small suitcase, 10 marks in her purse, and a diamond ring in her pocket (given to her at the last moment by Hahn to be used in case of an emergency).

By pre-arrangement, Dirk Coster was waiting on board the train for her and and pretended to greet her with surprise, as though he had not expected to see her. This was part of the escape plan. Coster was himself at that moment present in Nazi Germany helping a prominent Jewish scientist illegally leave the country, and in so doing he acted with great heroism and at peril to himself. The train pulled out and the tense and terrifying journey proceeded. With the help of local contacts on the Dutch side of the border the resourceful Dirk Coster had arranged with the Dutch border patrol that Meitner would not be asked for her passport or otherwise prevented from entering Holland. This was a very considerable piece of work on Coster's part. The plan worked and Coster and Meitner crossed over into Holland without incident and traveled on to Groningen. It was an incredible adventure for the mild-mannered and intense 59 year-old physicist, one she would rather have done without.

In due course Meitner left Holland, moved on to Stockholm and took up a position in a new nuclear physics institute sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and run by a very male-chauvinistic Nobel Laureate by the name of Manne Siegbahn. The relationship with Siegbahn proved to be an unhappy one, he was ever unfriendly and unhelpful to her, and she never really felt at home in Sweden. She nevertheless spent the next 22 years of her life there, eventually becoming a Swedish citizen. In 1960 at the age of 81 she moved to Cambridge, England, to be near her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, and his family. She died there on October 27, 1968.

The Sad Case of the
Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum in Munich is thought by many to be the leading science museum in Germany, and maybe it is. It has, however, like many German institutions, had some difficulty coming to terms with its own history. The museum's treatment of Lise Meitner is illustrative.

What you see in the photo above is an exhibit to be found today in the Chemistry section of the Deutsches Museum. It is captioned:

The Experimental Apparatus with which the Team of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann Discovered Nuclear Fission in 1938
It was not always so. From 1953 to 1990 the exhibit, which is a composite of devices used by Meitner and Hahn in three separate rooms of the institute and not a single work table, was designated in the museum as:

Work Table of Otto Hahn

The signs on the wall next to the exhibit originally made no mention of Lise Meitner. Charlotte Kerner has explained in her current article about Meitner in Die Zeit that Hahn himself organized the original museum exhibit. This may explain why the original treatment of the exhibit referred only to Hahn and not to Meitner. In 1989, in response to pressure from knowledgeable historians of science, among them Ruth Lewin Sime, the distinguished American biographer of Lise Meitner, the exhibit was re-titled and the accompanying description was revised and updated (with text by Sime). Welcome corrections to be sure, but 37 years overdue from an institution that should have, and must in fact have, known better. Such institutional lassitude over such an extended period is a stain on the scholarly reputation of the museum.

One would think that the museum having been thus brought to account in 1989 would have taken steps to assure that all of its public faces would be corrected. If so, one would be wrong. The museum continues today to present on its website an account of the so-called work table at odds with the true history of the devices on the table and with the updated description within the museum itself. In particular, the website contains three egregious misstatements: for one, the website asserts that the devices shown in the exhibit were assembled and organized by Otto Hahn when in fact they were put together by Meitner herself. A knowledgeable observer can plainly see these devices are those of the physicist not the chemist.

For another, Lise Meitner is characterized on the website as a "Mitarbeiterin" of Hahn. This term in German connotes "assistant" or "junior partner" not "colleague" or "full partner." When the devices displayed on the exhibit table were employed in 1938 in the experiments leading to the splitting of the uranium nucleus Meitner was a world-renowned physicist with her own research institute and staff separate from that of Hahn and was no one's "Mitarbeiterin."

The website continues to err by claiming that Hahn did not participate in the German effort during WW II to develop an atomic bomb ("Hahn am deutschen Atomprojekt nicht beteiligt war..."). As Professor Sime has pointed out, "the opposite is true."

Curiously, although the museum director and his staff are well aware of these errors and know that the website is out of step with the museum exhibit itself, they persist in maintaining the website in its present form.

As it happens, the Deutsches Museum is even now in the process of producing a scholarly history of itself during the Nazi era. This would be an excellent occasion for the museum to make amends for its past mistreatment of Lise Meitner and bring its website properly up to date.

[Subsequent to this writing, and after an exchange of correspondence between the Deutsches Museum management and the author, the museum management begrudgingly updated the website so as to correspond more closely to the facts and to the description given in the museum itself.]

The 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry -- Five Swedes Get it Wrong

The end result of the combined experimental and theoretical efforts of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn from 1934 through early 1939 was to split the atom, discover and describe the process of nuclear fission and launch the nuclear age. It counts as one of mankind's great scientific achievements and would richly deserve the ultimate prize for achievements in physics and chemistry. The Nobel Prize would count as that ultimate prize if only it were what the public thinks it is, namely, a prize awarded by a qualified panel of certified experts adjudicating the merits of scientific work in an atmosphere free of scientific, political, racial and gender prejudice and pressure. This definition, unfortunately, does not apply to the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry (and perhaps for all other fields as well) are dispensed by a small panel of Swedish persons meeting behind closed doors who may or may not be qualified to judge what they are judging and who often bring to bear upon their judgments all imaginable forms of prejudice, incompetence, whimsy and small-mindedness. To take just one example -- Albert Einstein was nominated ten times, all in vain, for the Nobel Prize in Physics before finally receiving it on the eleventh go-around in 1921 -- sixteen years after his discovery of special relativity in 1905 and six years after his discovery of general relativity in 1915. Almost every man, woman and child on the planet knew by the mid-teens that Einstein was one of the scientific giants of human history. Though few understood it, the language of relativity had become part of everyday conversation in all corners of the globe. After the solar eclipse observations by Eddington in 1919, confirming that light bends going around the sun, Einstein was practically deified. Nevertheless, it took the five Swedes on the physics committee until 1921 to catch up. One of the reasons given by one of the five, by the way, was that relativity was about philosophy not science! Five Swedes off the street locked in a room with a bottle of acquavit could have done better.

With this in mind it will come as no surprise to the reader that Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn did not share a Nobel Prize. On the contrary, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "in reward for his discovery of the fission heavy atomic nuclei." (From the Presentation Speech of Professor A. Westgren, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, given on December 10, 1944.) Hahn was not permitted to leave Germany in 1944 to receive the prize and so did not actually receive it until 1946.

Beginning in the early 1930's Enrico Fermi in Italy had been experimenting with the bombardment of nuclei of various elements on the periodic table with neutrons. In 1934 Lise Meitner wished to undertake a project at her institute in Berlin to replicate, clarify and extend Fermi's work. She needed the assistance of a chemist so invited Otto Hahn to join her in the project, and he agreed to do so. Over the space of the next four years the two of them, with the added participation of an analytical chemist named Fritz Strassmann, carried out a series of experiments in which they bombarded nuclei, uranium nuclei in particular, with neutrons, using the devices now exhibited by the Deutsches Museum. Meitner inspired the project and according to Strassmann was its intellectual leader.

The project and the experimental neutron bombardment work of Meitner, Hahn and Strassmann continued into the first half of 1938. As we have seen, Meitner was forced to flee for her safety in July of 1938. That left Hahn and Strassmann behind in Berlin to carry on the work, using, of course, the devices and instruments Meitner necessarily left behind when she fled. From her new post in Sweden, however, Meitner continued to direct the experimental work of Hahn and Strassmann through correspondence. In our present era of instant Internet communication it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn how fast and efficient was the postal service in Germany and Sweden in 1938. Letters posted in Berlin were often delivered in Stockholm within one or two days. Through written correspondence Lise could thus closely direct and follow the experiments in Berlin, and Otto could quickly report his results to her.

In addition to their correspondence, Meitner and Hahn had one secret meeting in Copenhagen in November 1938. He went there to deliver a lecture and she quietly came over from Stockholm. They met in private and did not disclose the meeting to their friends. He told her of some strange results he was getting as the result of neutron bombardment of uranium, using increasingly sophisticated and exact methods. The results were such that neither of them could believe in their accuracy, and Meitner instructed him to go back to Berlin and do it over again with even greater care. In hindsight we can recognize that the results in question, which troubled them so, showed that the neutron bombardments were splitting the uranium nuclei.

Hahn and Strassmann continued this line of experimentation for the remainder of November and on into December. Hahn bore down hard and his methods became increasingly clever and refined. He was a talented chemist and he knew they were on the verge of an exciting discovery (without knowing what it was), he was under constant pressure from Meitner and they both knew that others, notably Curie and Savitch in Paris, were working along similar lines. Meitner and Hahn naturally wanted to get there first. Scientific research, it turns out, is a highly competitive field in which the players are interested not only in the discovery of truth but also in winning the race and enjoying the glory and rewards which come to the victor. Ego vies with intellect for primacy in scientific work.

As the experimental work continued into December it resolved itself into a puzzle over the persistent presence of barium in the dish containing the substances resulting from the neutron bombardment of uranium. Hahn, Meitner and everyone else working in the field expected the neutron bombarment of uranium to result in neutrons being captured in the uranium nucleus, thus adding to its weight and resulting in a new and heavier element, a so-called transuranium element. In this schema barium had no place. Barium (element 56) is a lighter not a heavier element than uranium (element 92). Common sense tells you that you cannot add weight to uranium and get a lighter element as a result. You must necessarily get a heavier element. Where, then, was all this barium coming from?

Hahn and Strassmann knew that some of the barium was coming from the barium chloride they themselves had introduced into the mixture to serve as a carrier agent in aid of the experiment. This was an accepted chemistry technique. The two chemists did not think for a moment that any of their barium was resulting from the neutron bombardment process. To the contrary, they believed that the resulting substance must be some kind of isotope of radium. Therefore they concentrated on the attempt to separate out the "resulting substance" from the barium carrier. Hahn and Strassmann tried a series of ingenious and refined methods of accomplishing this separation, but every one of them failed and they were left time and again with a bowl full of barium. It is easy for the observer today to say, "So be it. Your bombardment of uranium has evidently produced barium. Now go to work and figure out why." But this was not Hahn's mind-set. He believed, as did most every other chemist and physicist on earth, that the laws of physics do not permit barium to result from neutron bombardment of uranium. It simply cannot happen. This was why Lise told him in Copenhagen in November to go home and try it again. He did, and the result was the same.

This left Hahn in a dilemma: the facts of the experiments told him one thing, but his mind told him another. Should he publish the results of his experiments, even though he was not sure of them and could not explain them, or should he wait until Meitner could get up to speed and provide an explanation?

The timing of events now becomes critical. On Monday, December 19,Hahn wrote to Meitner describing his results: "Our radium isotopes act like barium...Perhaps you can suggest some fantastic explanation. We understand that it really can't break up into barium.... So try to think of some other possibility." She received that letter in Stockholm on Wednesday, December 21, and replied immediately saying it was "difficult to accept....but not impossible." She also informed Hahn that she would be leaving on Friday, December 23, for the village of Kungalv in the Swedish countryside for a week's vacation. She did not in that letter attempt an explanation of the barium.

On the same day that Meitner received and replied to his letter (Wednesday, December 21), Hahn and Strassmann completed one final test -- they subjected the mystery substance to a process of beta decay, which produced the element lanthanum rather than actinium, which in turn meant that the substance in question was not a radium isotope but was barium. Otto decided at this point to publish, without waiting for further input from Lise. He thereupon contacted Paul Rosbaud at Der Naturwissenschaften and told him he had an important paper for the next edition. Rosbaud bumped another article to make space and offered to print Hahn's article in the January 6, 1939, edition of the journal.

This was a fateful decision by Hahn at a critical moment in the history of science. On the one hand, he was really not ready in his own mind to accept the results of the experiments, i.e., that he had produced barium. He had doubts. On the other hand, he knew his results were important, or might be, however strange, and he wanted to get into print before Curie and Savitch did so. He was evidently not willing to wait until Lise could come aboard and provide the needed explanation. His haste to publish and his taste for glory overcame his uncertainty about his results and his loyalty to Lise. We can mark this moment as the point at which Hahn decided to become a Bonze (German for "big man").

Otto wrote to Meitner again that evening (Wednesday), lamely asserting (knowing he was about to push off without her), "We cannot hush up the results even though they may be absurd in physical terms. You can see that you will be performing a good deed [if you can provide an explanation]." "A good deed?" What kind of condescending expression was that? He promised to send her a manuscript copy of the article he was about to write.

Hahn completed his write up the next day, Thursday, December 22, and delivered it personally to Rosbaud that evening. The article, as we know, bore the names of Hahn and Strassmann but not of Meitner. Later that evening Hahn mailed a copy to Meitner, addressed to her in Stockholm because he had not yet seen her letter advising him she was leaving for Kungalv.

In retrospect it is fair to criticize Hahn's rush to publish. The article was, after all, not truly ready for publication (see below). Did he have any reason to think Curie and Savitch were really so close behind? Was it not in fact the beginning of the Christmas holiday season when most everyone can be expected to slack off in any event? Did he not have a moral obligation to Lise, who had been driven out of her home and her laboratory by the Nazis, and who had in fact inspired and directed the project which had led to the barium results, to wait at least a few days for her to receive his article and work out the theoretical explanation of what had happened? The addition of such an explanation would have made the paper far more professional and scholarly. These questions continue to overhang Hahn's legacy.

Let us consider, then, the Hahn-Strassmann article which was published by Rosbaud on January 6, 1939. On the face of it it is an awkward, incomplete and hesitant piece of work. Hahn pulled his punches and stepped back from the conclusions that were implied by the experimental results. He apparently lacked the courage of his own convictions, making his rush to publish look all the more nakedly opportunistic.

The article begins with the title,

"Ueber den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle"

("On the Detection and Behavior of Alkaline Earth Elements Derived from the Neutron-Irradiation of Uranium").

It should better have read "Barium" rather than "Alkaline Earth Elements." The entire course of experiment had been about the baffling presence of barium. Why not say as much? Bear in mind he later received a Nobel Prize precisely because he had produced barium.

The article then proceeds in a hesitant, subjunctive mood: "we ought to...," "we should...," "there could be...," and weakest of all, "we cannot bring take such a drastic step." The facts reported in the article point squarely to barium, i.e., to the splitting of the uranium nucleus, but Hahn lacked sufficient confidence (or courage) to say it. The article cries out for the theoretical explanation that Lise Meitner could have given.

The article concludes on this limpid note:

Als Chemiker muessten wir aus den kurz dargelegtenVersuchen das oben gebrachte Schema eigentlich unbenennen und statt Ra, Ac, Th die Symbole Ba, La, Ce einsetzen. Als der Physik in gewisser Weise nahestehende “Kernchemiker” koennen wir uns zu diesem, allen bisherigen Erfahrungen der Kernphysik widersprechenden, Sprung noch nicht entschliessen. Es koennten doch noch vielleicht eine Reihe selstsamer Zufaelle unsere Ergebnisse vorgetaeuscht haben.

[As chemists we should restate the above-mentioned scheme resulting from our briefly-described experiment and instead of Ra [radium], Ac[actinium], Th[thorium] insert the symbols Ba [barium], La [lanthanum], Ce[cerium]. As “nuclear chemists” working close to the field of physics we are not ready to take this step, which contradicts all previous experience of nuclear physics. It could perhaps be that an unusual series of coincidences has falsified our results.]
Believe it or not this cautious article, this blatant hedging of his bet, this steadfast refusal to say, "we have split the atom," won the Nobel Prize for Hahn. Other factors may have entered in, but this was the springboard to the prize.

The explanation Hahn craved and could not himself give was in fact given by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch 2 days after Hahn completed and submitted his article. Meitner and Frisch met in Kungalv for their Christmas holiday week, and on the morning of December 24, Christmas eve day, began to discuss Otto Hahn's letter of December 19. They had not yet even received and read his letter of December 21 or the manuscript copy of his article. The December 19 letter sufficed, however, to show Meitner and Frisch that Hahn had apparently split a uranium nucleus.

On that December 24 morning, in a scene that might have come out of a Hollywood movie, Frisch put on his new cross-country skis and Lise put on her hiking boots and the two of them set out on a tour through the snowy Kungalv countryside. As they progressed along the trail they tried to make sense of what Hahn had reported. How was it possible to form barium out of uranium? As their conversation gained momentum their tour lost momentum and they sat down on a log along the trail. Lise pulled out some scraps of paper from her bag and they began to calculate and draw diagrams.

In a short time the two of them had taken a giant step: using the metaphor proposed by Niels Bohr which suggests that an atomic nucleus is like a drop of water they asked, what if that drop should pull or be pulled apart into two separate drops? It happens easily with water when shaken. Could it happen to a nucleus when hit and de-stabilized by a neutron? Suppose it did and the two drops were pushed apart by the mutual repulsion of their respective collections of protons. Frisch, a better draftsman than Meitner, diagrammed how it might look. They realized, however, that it would take enormous energy to push the fragments apart, so Meitner, a better calculator than Frisch, began to calculate. She concluded that it would take 200 million electron volts to push the two nuclear fragments apart. Now where might that energy come from? Was such energy available in the nucleus? Meitner remembered some earlier numbers concerning the mass defects of nuclei and calculated that when a nucleus splits in two it loses one-fifth the mass of a proton. Then in a beautiful application of Einstein's equation E = mc² she calculated that loss of the mass of one-fifth of a proton would generate approximately 200 million electron volts of energy, just enough to push the two drops of the nucleus apart. It all fit together. It must have been a thrilling moment for the two of them.

Meitner and Frisch thus had derived the theoretical explanation of Hahn's and Strassmann's experimental results precisely three days after Meitner received Hahn's letter of December 19 and two days following the submission of Hahn's article to Der Naturwissenschaften. As they sat in Kungalv continuing to discuss their conclusions they did not know that Hahn's article was due to be published on January 6. Unlike Hahn, they did not rush to publish.

Among other reasons, Frisch wanted first to take their results back to Copenhagen and discuss them with Niels Bohr. He did so on January 3. In a scene one would die to have witnessed, Bohr slapped his forehead and exclaimed, "Oh what idiots we have all been! Oh but this is wonderful! This is just as it must be!" On that same day Meitner received the revised proofs of Hahn's article and wrote to him acknowledging that she was now certain that he had split the uranium nucleus and produced barium. Three days later, on Friday, January 6, 1939, Meitner and Frisch worked out the outline of their paper on the telephone and Frisch thereupon drafted it. Ironically, this draft of the Meitner-Frisch paper explaining the result was written on the same day that the Hahn-Strassmann paper was published reporting the result. So close yet so far.

In the course of the next week, the week beginning January 9, Frisch constructed and conducted an experiment designed to test the conclusions he and Meitner had reached by searching for telltale nuclear fragments that would indicate the nucleus had split. He began his measurements on that Friday, January 13. The results showed the anticipated fragments and confirmed the theoretical model he and Meitner had developed.

In the immediate aftermath of his experiment Frisch had a chance conversation with one William A. Arnold who was a visiting biologist from the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. Frisch asked Arnold what biologists call it when cells divide. Arnold said "binary fission." Frisch dropped the "binary" and adopted the "fission," thus arriving at the name by which the process of splitting the nucleus has ever since been known, "nuclear fission." Thanks to a Californian.

Meitner and Frisch now had a theory, experimental confirmation of the theory and a new name for the process explained by the theory. Unlike Hahn they had not precipitously rushed to publish, and as a result they had a more satisfying article to present. Meitner and Frisch again conferred by telephone and agreed on the final form of their paper. In addition, Frisch separately wrote up the results of his experiment. Frisch finished the drafting of both papers on Monday, January 16, and mailed them to the journal Nature in London the following morning. The Meitner-Frisch paper, "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction," wherein the name "nuclear fission" appeared for the first time in print, was published in Nature on February 11, 1939, just 36 days after the publication of Hahn's and Strassmann's paper.

I have spelled out these dates in order to illustrate the essential unity of the combined work of Meitner, Frisch, Hahn and Strassmann. They did their work in same time frame and would have done it in the same location had not the Nazis driven Meitner out of Berlin. All of their efforts were directed at the same subject and their work was complementary. Hahn and Strassmann produced the physical results in the laboratory but could not explain them. Indeed, they doubted them. Meitner and Frisch took over the results and created the theoretical framework which explained them and in so doing laid the foundation for the nuclear age. Had Hahn acted with a little bit more courtesy, consideration and collegiality their combined work would have been presented and published in a unified article and science would have been the better for it. Instead, Hahn jumped the gun and in retrospect made himself seem crassly opportunistic. He acted not in the interests of science, but in his own interest.

From this complex mix of experimental and theoretical work by four German scientists five errant Swedes plucked out Hahn alone for recognition and gave him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. From the date his paper was prematurely published, January 6, 1939, until the end of his life Hahn played the Bonze and sought recognition to the exclusion of his three colleagues, especially of Lise Meitner. If the five Swedes wished to honor him alone he was fine with that. He did, in fairness, give a nod, however minimal, in Meitner's direction in his Nobel Lecture of December 13, 1946, but later on when, as a laureate, he was entitled to participate in the Nobel Prize process he did not do what a man with better character would have done -- press for an award of the physics prize to Lise.

(The records of the Nobel Prize deliberations by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science are kept closed for 50 years following an award. The records of the award to Hahn were opened to scholars in 1996 and were the subject of an extensive article reviewing the process by Elizabeth Crawford, Ruth Lewin Sime and Mark Walker, "A Nobel Tale of Postwar Injustice," Physics Today, Volume 50, Issue 9, 26 - 32 (1997). )

Looking back now 40 years after her death, Lise Meitner's reputation has grown and continues to grow, while Hahn's reputation remains tarnished by the one-sided award of the Nobel Prize and his opportunistic and selfish conduct before and after the award. Unjust though the denial of the Nobel Prize was, Lise Meitner has been honored in many, many other ways: numerous German schools and streets bear her name; element 109 in the periodic table is called "meitnerium;" both Germany and Austria have issued Lise Meitner stamps;

a crater on Venus has been named for her;

likewise a crater on the moon; she received the Max Planck Medal (with Hahn), the Otto Hahn Prize (!) and the Enrico Fermi Award (with Hahn and Strassmann); and in 1946, the year Hahn received the Nobel Prize, she was named Woman of the Year in the U.S. by the Women's National Press Club and was seated next to Harry S Truman, President of the United States, at the award banquet.

(MTNR 8/2/1, Courtesy of Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Not a Bath-House

David Hilbert

"I don't see why the sex of the candidate is relevant -- this is after all an academic institution not a bath-house!"

A just sentiment addressed in exasperation by the great German mathematician, David Hilbert, to the Academic Senate of the University of Goettingen, then (ca. 1915) the premier center of mathematics in Europe, upon the refusal of his male colleagues to allow the brilliant algebraist, Emmy Noether, to do her Habilitation so that she could teach at the university.

Emmy Noether

Hilbert's outburst expresses well the theme of this blog: the stupidity and pointlessness of the prejudice, opposition, lack of recognition and worse suffered by women in science and mathematics through the years at the hands of their male colleagues and the institutions they controlled (and continue to control).

Emmy Noether is one of many remarkable and too-little-known women who have put up with the Bath-House mentality of their male colleagues in order to do the scientific work they loved. When we examine their lives we see how often they were not only great scientists but were also great human beings. Perhaps they had to have great characters and great hearts in order to put up with the stupidity with which they were confronted. This must have certainly been true of Emmy Noether, for here is what another great German mathematician, Hermann Weyl, had to say about her in 1933 when she was forced by the Nazi's to give up her position and flee Germany:

"A stormy time of struggle like this one we spent in Goettingen in the summer of 1933 draws people closely together; thus I have a vivid recollection of these months. Emmy Noether -- her courage, her frankness, her unconcern about her own fate, her conciliatory spirit - was in the midst of all the hatred and meanness, despair and sorrow surrounding us, a moral solace." (Quoted from Byers and Williams eds., Out of the Shadows, 92 (2006))

She died at the age of 53 "at the summit of her powers," according to Weyl, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylania, of complications following an operation. Albert Einstein commemorated her in a long letter to the New York Times. He had this to say about Emmy Noether:
In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance.

As the father of a gifted daughter and two precocious granddaughters it is stories such as this which have inspired me to do this blog.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Women of Science

This blog is about women who have achieved greatness in science and who have done so in spite of the barriers posed by the male-dominated science culture and in some cases in spite of the deliberate efforts of their male colleagues to block them, undermine them and/or take credit for their work.

Some of the women I have in mind are:

Marie Curie: The leading example, of course. I have written an earlier post about this extraordinary woman in VentureMind. She discovered two elements, radium and polonium, was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in physics, was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize in chemistry and is to this day the only scientist of either gender to receive two Nobel prizes in scientific fields. If that were not enough, her daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, also received a Nobel prize in chemistry.

Lise Meitner: She fled Germany when the Nazis expelled Jewish scientists from German universities in the 30's. Though in exile and by then in her 60's she continued her path-breaking work which led to the discovery of nuclear fission, sending her results back to her former Mitarbeiter, Otto Hahn, a non-Jew who remained behind in Germany. Otto took credit for her work and received a Nobel prize. Lise Meitner did not.

Emilie du Chatelet: She was a wealthy, high-spirited and somewhat scandalous Frenchwoman who was, among other distinctions, Voltaire's girlfriend. Working entirely on her own, and not in a university, she translated Newton's works into French and explained them to the French.

Sonja Kowaleski: She is perhaps the least well-known of my selections. She was a fascinating and beautiful Russian aristocrat who became the leading woman mathematician of her day (she lived from 1850 to 1891). She became the pupil of Karl Weierstrass, the leading figure of his day in the mathematical field of analysis, who was then a professor at the University of Berlin. The university's senate refused to admit Sophie to Weierstrass' lectures, so he tutored her in private. She ultimately took her degree from the University of Goettingen, the valhalla of German mathematics. Weierstrass tried in vain to find her a university position in Germany, but no one was interested in having a woman mathematician on the faculty. She finally obtained a position at the University of Stockholm, and in 1888, at the age of 38, she received the coveted Bordin Prize of the French Academy of Sciences -- in effect a French version of the Nobel Prize. How did a woman receive the highest French award? The papers were submitted anonymously. The judges did not know that her paper, On the rotation of a solid body about a fixed point, was written by a woman.

Rosalind Franklin: The story of Rosalind Franklin is by now well known and she has posthumously received much of the recognition she deserves and which James Watson of The Double Helix did so much to deny her. I have earlier written a post about Watson's treatment of her. Her expert x-ray crystallography produced an incredible image (the famous Photograph 51) which showed the helical structure of DNA. The photo was illicitly shown to Watson and Crick in Rosalind's absence by her underhanded co-worker, Maurice Wilkins. Watson and Crick immediately saw that it confirmed their work, so they used it and went on to win Nobel Prizes. Rosalind in the meantime died of cancer.

Cecilia Payne: The Harvard astronomer who established that the sun is principally made of hydrogen and not of iron as all leading astronomers had previously thought. Henry Norris Russell, then the pre-eminent American astronomer, disbelieved and ridiculed her results and outrageously forced her to water down her paper by casting doubt on her own findings. Four years later, in a paper of his own, Norris grudgingly admitted that indeed stars generally did seem to be made of hydrogen. Cecilia spent her entire career at Harvard where for most of her life she was treated and paid as a lowly technical assistant to the chief astronomer, Harlow Shapley. Her Ph.D was awarded in astronomy (the first ever from Harvard in that field) and not in physics, where all other astronomy Ph.D's were awarded, because the chairman of the Physics Department, one Theodore Lyman, refused to accept a woman student. Finally, in 1956, some 30 years after coming to Harvard, she was made a professor -- the first woman professor in Harvard's history. (Harvard's history of dubious treatment of women scientists flamed to life again in 2005 when Larry Summers, then the president of the university, gave a talk in which he suggest men have more innate scientific ability than women. This gaffe ultimately led to his resignation. Selber schuld.)

Jocelyn Bell: Bell was a radio astronomer at Cambridge University who, together with her lead professor, Anthony Hewish, discovered pulsars in 1967. It was a sensational discovery, entirely unanticipated, and led to much speculation about whether pulsars were signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Hewish and his mentor, Martin Ryles, were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery, but Bell, who was actually the key member of the team who found the pulsar, was not given the prize. (She nevertheless has received many awards for her scientific work, including, ironically, an honorary doctorate from Harvard!) During most of her career Bell followed her husband around from job to job in the United Kingdom as he pursued his career at the expense of hers. She finally divorced him.

Vera Rubin: She is credited as the discoverer of dark matter, the mysterious and unseen matter which makes up most of the universe. Like Jocelyn Bell, an indeed many other women in science, she married young and spent most of her life giving up her own opportunities (one of which was, yet another Crimson irony, a graduate fellowship at Harvard College Observatory) and following her scientist husband from place to place and bearing and raising children. In 1963 she was invited to apply for telescope time at Palomar Observatory, the application for which stated "Due to limited facilities, it is not possible to accept applications from women." Nevertheless, her application succeeded and she became the first woman to be granted use of the Palomar Observatory telescope. [The public affairs officer of Palomar has recently assured me by email that the quoted exclusion of women in the application form no longer exists, but is "part of our distant past."]

[to be continued]