A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity

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Issue 13, Volume 111

By Aya Alryyes 

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The Nobel Prize Committee has drawn scrutiny and criticism over their recipients’ lack of diversity, provoking headlines like “The Nobels Overwhelmingly Go to Men” from NPR and “Breaking News: White Men Awarded Nobel Prize, Again” from HuffPost. There certainly is cause for these headlines: as of 2020, 57 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to women compared to 876 awarded to men. The disparity is much deeper within the sciences, where only four women have received the award for physics, making up a minute 1.9 percent of the total winners for that prize.

While some of these gaps reflect pre-existing disparities within the field, research has shown that it does not account for all of them. Even after balancing those disparities, women remain noticeably underrepresented in the Nobels. While it is important that the Nobel Prize Committee prioritizes representation and diversity in their considerations moving forward, it must also look to its past wrongs. Addressing and honoring women who have been overlooked is the first step in making the Nobel Prize truly meaningful.

No one is more deserving of long-overdue honor than physicist Lise Meitner. Born in Austria to Jewish parents in 1878, she was brought up to value learning and thinking for herself. Her parents, who had seven other children, insisted that their daughters receive the same education as their sons. From a very young age, Meitner showed a proclivity and passion for math and science and received private tutoring in those subjects, since public education for girls was limited. She focused her talents on gaining entrance to the University of Vienna, a pursuit in which she was successful.

After receiving her doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1907 and becoming only the second woman to do so, she moved to Berlin, the “mecca of theoretical physics.” There, she worked at the Friedrich Wilhelm Institute and met influential scientists such as Max Planck, who opposed the admittance of women to universities but regarded Meitner as an exception, and Albert Einstein, who would term her “the German Marie Curie.” Most importantly, Meitner met Otto Hahn, a German chemist with whom she would work for the rest of her career. Though Meitner stood out as a brilliant mind, due to the gender discrimination in Germany at the time, her work in Berlin initially went unpaid, and she was barred from using the labs, “lest her hair catch fire.” Instead, she did all of her initial research in a basement.

Despite these setbacks, Meitner did great work during her time in Berlin. She and Hahn formed the perfect pair, with her as the bold physicist and him as the methodical chemist. Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a new way to detect radioactivity, as well as several new radioactive isotopes, authoring nine papers over a two-year period.

Meitner and Hahn moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in 1912, where Hahn received the title of “professor” and Meitner of “guest.” Hahn appointed her his assistant later that year, which was the lowest rung on the academic ladder but her first paid position. Though Meitner later ascended to the same rank as Hahn, her salary remained lower than his.

With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Meitner worked as an X-ray technician on the front lines until 1916. Upon her return to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Meitner and Hahn discovered the first stable isotope of protactinium, meaning the element’s properties could finally be determined. For this discovery, Meitner achieved significant professional recognition, receiving the Leibniz Medal from the Berlin Academy. Meitner became the first female physics professor in Germany in 1926. Even then, she faced condescension and disregard, such as when newspapers reported the topic of her lecture as “Cosmetic Physics.”

When Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Meitner began facing opposition for her Jewish ancestry. While she lost her lecture position at the University of Berlin, she critically maintained her research position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Despite the enormous stress of being Jewish at the time, this period was also when Meitner began her most important work.

Meitner became very interested in 1934 in the work of Enrico Fermi, an Italian scientist whose experiments suggested the possibility of creating transuranic elements, or those heavier than uranium, by bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons. She and Hahn teamed up again at her request to investigate Fermi’s hypothesis.

Hahn found almost unbelievable results. It seemed that barium (atomic number 56) was consistently a product. But how could an element split into a lighter one? He wrote to Meitner, who had fled Nazi Germany to Sweden, to see if she had an explanation for what seemed like an impossibility. She wondered if it was possible for a nucleus to split up into two smaller nuclei.

During a walk in the winter woods, Meitner came to the realization that if E=mc2,mass could not be lost, but the nucleus could split. After calculations, Meitner realized this split would come to an extraordinary amount of energy.

Yet Hahn published their work without listing Meitner as a co-author. Putting a Jewish woman’s name on a scientific paper would have been dangerous in Nazi Germany. But some make the case that Hahn had been deliberately excluding Meitner from their work years before the war began. Even after the conflict ended and stability was restored, he did not revise the paper or the narrative to include Meitner. Hahn alone received wide recognition for the discovery while Meitner came to be known only as his junior assistant.

Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for “his” discovery of nuclear fission. Meitner, who had been nominated 19 times for the Prize in Chemistry and 29 times in the Prize in Physics, was not included.

Meitner was not only a brilliant scientist but also a moral one. Unlike many other nuclear physicists at the time, she tried her hardest to separate herself from the atomic bomb, rejecting an offer to work on the Manhattan Project. She resented the fact that it was her research that made such weapons of mass destruction possible. It is for these reasons that her tombstone reads, “A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity.”

Meitner has received some recognition for her brilliance and hard work. She, along with Hahn, was the 1966 winner of the Fermi Prize, a prestigious Presidential award. Moreover, the extremely radioactive element 109 was named meitnerium in 1997 after her. But these recognitions aren’t enough. The fact that she was passed over for the Nobel Prize for a discovery that would not have been possible without her more than invaluable contributions is a huge injustice. She deserves the same recognition as Hahn, if not more, as she was the one, after all, who figured out the actual mechanism of nuclear fission. Even now, more than 50 years after her death, she remains much less known than her male counterpart.

Though the Nobel Committee has a strict policy of only awarding living people, ruling out the possibility of a posthumous Nobel Prize for Meitner and women like her (most grievously Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell), a simple statement of acknowledgment of wrongdoing from the committee would bestow some of the recognition she so undoubtedly deserves.

The Nobel Organization keeps its nominations and deliberations secret, so it is difficult to verify if they have followed through on their assertion that they “will continue to work actively” on diversity. Such a statement acknowledging the injustice done to Meitner would be material evidence that the Nobel Prize Committee is committed to just representation.