Lise Meitner and the bittersweet story of a nuclear genius
This is an ABC podcast. Attention mature joining me for sides frictions. Been following the fall at this past week after a young computer, scientists Katie Bowman became a target for trolls in IT had got all excited about katie's contribution to the algorithm. Dada. Crunching that pace together that I ever incredible pizza of a black hole in kind of missed. It was everywhere humanity revealed a picture of something so huge and amazing even I'm Stein had not dared dream it exists. We have seen what we thought was unsuitable and in the process one member of the telescope team became an instant icon predicted black hole that you would see this ring a white beat knowing we're going to get that ring Cutty was a student at MIT when she did the work. So they posted a photo of her on social media jago Katie go team black hole run. And then the internet ruined it within hours debates on Reddit questioning her credibility, Instagram, profiles and. Twitter accounts and towns YouTube result for the name. Katie Bowman included a video arguing that she'd done far less work than men on her team. It was the internet at its worst. Andrew shale the colleague getting much of the credit in the viral post targeting Bowman quickly came to her defense a now viral tweet of his own writing while I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I work hard on for years. You congratulate me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie. Please go away and reconsider your priorities in life. NBC's Jake ward reporting on the whole crazy saga, and he's Katie Bowman has self speaking Celtic where she starts his an assistant professor of computing mathematical sciences in June. This was a huge team effort. I know like right now in the media. There's a lot of stuff going around. I single handedly the alleged project as far from the truth as possible. So I just wanna make sure everyone knows from the beginning this effort of lots and lots of people for many years. Rick and the women in science a century before us would be northing probably shaking their heads. Once. I got over the bizarre thing, we call the internet at least unders patrols when with I thi- the base that white hundred bridge in the fairytale snow wash nothing's of change and yet half things have stayed the same because women back vein which rolled in. Otherwise, if you call it the past two shows we were digging into the historical controversy surrounding Albert Einstein's fist wife Malaysia marriage on Stein over where this she was a hidden contributor to Elba tes famous work, including his theory of special relativity. And I want to bring you more of the conversation are shed for with historian of science and k missed professor Ruth Lou inside because she's author of an influential bog Raphy about another extraordinary person in the history of science who as it heavens is also a woman, the most famous discovery that leaves a minor is assoc-. Hid with is the discovery of nuclear fission, which even to this day is something that people talk about because the effects of nuclear fission both for weapons and for energy is still with us. Of course. Power man has released from within the atoms. Heart is not one, but many giants one is the warrior the destroyer. Another is the engineers seeking to provide vast quantities of energy to run the world's machines still another is the healer. The big discovery that heralded the nuclear revolution of the twentieth. Century elbowed on Stein, code lace, Amata our Mara Curie, but always interested in this famous Austrian physicist because of the contrast between her experiences, and Malaysia and Elwood's she was of the same generation as van which means as we heard with Malaya's story. She came of age as a scientist when women were Bailey late into European universities. You've described those Ailey women as double outside since they were unconventional as women in that they were women who didn't just choose to marry and have families and in the scientific professions. They were complete rarities it total exceptions and not fully accepted into this, very mailed domain, and those that did manage to become scientists and and were accepted by their immediate peers, those who knew them and understood that they work with good. They still the larger scientific community still regarded them as strange, so they were double exceptions that way. Yeah. So strange. They went to university and date to become scientists Malaya's hoped for a career in science was truncated after her marriage to Elbert Lisa naval married and her scientific career took off and the striking parallels in Lisa L Whitman. Alive is lives continuing down to fleeing the Nazis and the small meta of Nobel prize. Yes, very close parallels. Lease Meitner was three years younger. They both grew up in Austria, Hungary, where they both had the same disadvantages with respect to education. Lease miners family was not as well office malay- family. So she did not go to any special schools, but Hartley because of Malaysia and the women who came earlier, the Austrian universities open to women in eighteen ninety seven and I was just in time for LIZA Meitner to to enter the universities. She was I think twenty three when she first entered the university in Vienna. So she was one of the women who benefited from the pioneering efforts of women like Malaysia. And it seems that they both head fathers who advocated for them. And that was extremely typical for women that. That time well into the twentieth century that as girls, they had a father who advocated for them who told him that they could do it and who supported them, of course, not only psychologically, but also financially because it was usually expensive in Europe for a girl to get a an education of preparatory education. When she first arrived in Berlin, she had no status whatsoever. To her great surprise. She found that the universities and Berlin, we're not even open to women students when she arrived there in nineteen oh seven, but she asked mocks plunk if she could sit in on his classes, and he allowed her to be an auditor, and she looked around for a place to work and auto Han said that he would like to work with a physicist in radio activity, and so she was extremely fortunate just to have that chance, but she had no position whatsoever. She was considered to be a guess. East? She had no position. She had no money. Leiper completely and she had no prospects at that point forever. Getting a position because women were absolutely excluded. From even the lowest level ranks of German scientific work. Lisa into the university of Vienna. Renonwed one hundred one nine hundred hundred six I think she became the second woman is that rot ever to be boarded a doctorate of physics. This was the beginning of whole host of firsts. I wasn't at what did she go on to become to do one of the things. I want to emphasize is how much support a woman needed if she was going to be successful. At all what Lisa got was when she went to Berlin. She had tremendous good luck. That was a young man just her age who offered her a place in his lab. So that they could work together on radio activity, and that was Otto Hahn who became her colleague for thirty one years they worked under the same roof. But the first start that she got. In his lab was something that was basically extremely good luck. She would never have been able to prove herself. And then other people took notice there was mocks plunk the were a male Fisher these were very famous professors, and they gave her a position with pay. Eventually basically her career was a series of I for for the inclusion of women into German science. She was made a professor and she was given her own laboratory eventually by nineteen twenty where she did independent research and became one of the first people who did pioneering research in what became known as nuclear physics, and they basically regarded her as an exception to be sure they were not ready to accept all women. But they saw in her an exception, which he was an exceptional scientists and a delightful person somebody that they liked and wanted to include. And this was how she made her way. And she became extremely. In German physics. She was distinguished as Marie Curie at that point in the nineteen twenties. Internationally prominent as well, isn't it extrordinary that Elwood on stone cold out Murray Curie when he we are telling the story of how leases are- was able to be pushed Ford and thrive at least until a certain point and Malaya's wind. Absolutely nowhere as Elwood on stan's. Fist wife. Yes. It is extraordinarily. And it's it's it's quite sad. In a way, the woman that that he was closest to was not somebody that he could apparently support in her own intellectual life. Should she have shade the non teen forty four Nobel prosecute mystery with who collaborator of so many decades auto Han for the discovery of nuclear fission. Yes, she absolutely should have shared in the discovery. It's it's a complete injustice that she was overlooked. It's as if at that point in the nineteen thirties when Hitler came to power, basically, her luck ran out. It certainly is an injustice that she did not share the Nobel prize with auto Hawn or get a Nobel prize on her own in physics for the discovery of nuclear fission. The discovery itself was the end result of a four year long scientific investigation, which was initiated by her in Berlin in nineteen thirty four she recruited auto Hawn to work with her as a chemist, and they recruited another chemist for Strassmann to work with them. And they were a team in Berlin for four years. In nineteen thirty eight. She had to scape from Germany because she was Jewish and because she was about to lose her position. She went to Sweden she continued to communicate by letter with Han very regularly. They still kept working on the investigation and the in December of nineteen thirty eight on reported to her that they had found something unexpected that when they irradiate uranium with neutrons, they found they had bury him as a product and berry MS much smaller nucleus than uranium. So that was the first indication that something very unusual was happening with the Iranian nucleus, and he communicated that immediately to Meitner she responded at once that this was not impossible that the uranium nucleus would break up. And so that basically was the discovery of nuclear fission, and as I see it, and as as documents show, it LIZA might contributed to that. Education, even after she left Berlin right up until the end a few months after she left. It turned out that in Nazi Germany auto Hawn and Strauss could not include her name on their publication. And so the publication of the barium finding went out under the names upon and Strauss mon- only and then lease a Meitner with her nephew. Did the first theoretical interpretation of the fish and process, which also was a great discovery. And they were also the first to name the process in English nuclear fission. So she's very much associated with the discovery. But people who didn't understand how the discovery took place attributed the discovery to and Strauss men because their names were on the paper. And only Han got the Nobel prize. It has remained very controversial decision. It's one of the Nobel decisions that has been regarded as as almost scandal at the time by other physicists, and by other scientists who recognize it might in our had taken part in the discovery. So after fleeing the Nazis, Lisa Martin and lost out on the nineteen forty four Nobel prize for chemistry. Eat went to her longtime collaborator and framed auto Han in stage, but she had all the concerns on mind when he nine hundred forty five she wrote to him in a visceral Bing later are written many lead. It's in my thoughts in the last few months. They corresponded regularly throughout the laws, but these Salita stands out because it was clear to me that even people such as you have not comprehended the reality of the situation like many other non-jewish scientists tons died in Germany under Nazi rule his confession contributed to the country's wartime. If it to develop nuclear weapons, and yet after the war, he proudly distinguished himself as a no nutsy. He detested Ruth Lewin. Sometime says hey, presented Jim in science has somehow undiminished. In excellence. Untouched by it's national socialist past giving it a a persona that was historically empty and politically sterile sciences, somehow appear enterprise Untited by the hell of history that Lisa Martin a sore his choices differently and in June, non in forty five ROY these. You worked for Nazi Germany. You did not even try passive resistance. To absolve your consciences. He helps some press person here in the but millions of innocent people were allowed to be moded. And there was no protest. That you I betrayed your friends, then you'll men NGO children in the alleged them give their lives in a criminal war. And finally, you try Germany itself because even when the will was completely hopeless. You never once spoke out against the meaningless destruction of Germany in the last few days. One is heard of the believably gruesome things in the concentration camps, it overwhelms everything one previously feed. I have just returned from the Belsen concentration camp. I passed through the vani and found myself in the world of a nightmare typhus typhoid if some of them is decay lay strewn about their faces of the window flow near emaciated faces of stopping the week. I saw man wondering days along the road staggered on someone else look down at him took him by the heels and dragged him to the side of the road to join the other bodies lying on bury the dead and the dying Lakers together. I found a girl she was a living skeleton. She was stretching out her stick of an arm and gasping, something it was English English medicine medicine, and she was trying to cry but had not enough string. Perhaps you remember that while I was still in Germany. I often said to you as long as only we have sleepless nights and not you things will get better in Germany. But you had no sleepless nights you did not want to see it was uncomfortable. I beg you to believe me that everything I write. He's an attempt to help you. Lacan Stein as juice scientist laser head to flay Nazi Germany. I'm in the parallels are endless he in these stories between Malaysia Elbert and laser she had to flay Nazi Germany, not in thirty eight to save her life. She lost her status. She had an entry level job in Sweden on the other hand on stan's career continued to skyrocket as he flayed Nazi Germany Martin ahead, quite the opposite experience to Elbit quite the opposite experience for minor. So so what was the difference? Well, part of it was that Sweden was a much smaller scientific community there were more rigid hierarchies, and she came in as an immigrant, and as foreigner. And as a person who didn't know sweet it this way dish language, and of course, she was a woman, and there may even. Have been an an anti-semitic thread in this unpleasant story. But the main problem was that she did not get along with the person who's institute she'd been indicted to come to his name was Mani seek bun. He was the most powerful physicist in Sweden. He was on the Nobel committee's as were his students. He donated the Nobel physics committee, and he basically saw to it that she would not get a Nobel prize, despite the fact that during the course of her life, she had forty eight Nobel nominations of which about thirty five were for nuclear fission. Wow. So even within credible success all has accomplishments. Do you know what impact that had on her Ramoche inally the original impact when she discovered that? She was not nearly as welcome in Sweden is-. She had hoped that she would be she was devastated because for a number of reasons. Was that she didn't have the equipment or the support to do to do her research, and because she just had lost so much. She had lost her status. She had lost income is she had social so little income that she had to think about whether to send a letter if she could afford the stamps, and of course, she had left behind in most devastating way all the things that she had worked for in the course of her of her career, and and she was left with nothing at the age of sixty it. It was very devastating, and it appears that they were periods where she was quite despondent. But she kept on working the entire time that she was there in eventually she after World War Two. She did get a better position in Sweden and worked there for a number of years before she retired. I'm thinking then of the parallel story of Malaysia who didn't even get into a scientific career despotic respirator to do. So. Can we imagine? Can we Paul the size? What would if they mean packed Malaysia of having to give up her scientific career as she had children and supported helping on stan's exploding Korea. It must have been very similar because her dream for years had been to work as as a scientist either in physics or in mathematics, and she she was able to realize none of this. It is must have been absolutely devastating to her. And yet it is also clear that unlikely who never as far as we know had a serious relationship and always remained single by choice. It's clear that Malebo wanted to have a marriage and family, and this was very difficult for women at that time. Of course, we know that Marie Curie did everything two Nobel prizes. She was a wife mother of two daughters. She was. Was remarkable exception. But most women at that time who aspired to a career many women of that time did not marry because they felt they could only do one thing and that they needed to devote themselves to their work and some states I were on the allowed to do one thing. And I'm wondering to what extent we know with a history is infused with hidden stories of women, scientists working alongside the scientific husbands or other mile relatives. And we just don't know they contribution. I think that is must absolutely be the case. And the question of of women who whose contributions we just don't know of. It's a very interesting question before women were able to get a university education. That was there were many cases of women who did work with their husbands who are even learned from their husbands and then worked with their husbands because they wanted to do. Science and because this gave them a chance to do it. And so the the idea of scientific couples goes back hundreds of years because that was the only way or one of the only ways that a woman could actually work as a scientist. And and do what she wanted. And we often don't know about those women because historians only recorded with amended or because it was only the man who could put his name on the scientific publication and so on. So we only hear about it indirectly through documents through letters correspondence that we get an inkling of some of those women, and I'm sure there's many women that we we will never know of what do you think we have to think women like malivert marriage and Lisa Montana four today. We have to thank them for for doing everything they possibly could for getting out there and working and striving and being ambitious and LIZA might nurse case. She did in his. Tana Shing amount and became an example for people all over the world for for male. Scientists to recognize that women could be scientists as good as they were in Malaysia's case, her contributions are less obvious. But they're still there. She was in that first group of young women in of her generation who went in in rather large numbers to the universities to get an education, and who proved to the older generation and two men in general that women could do it. And the result of that was the universities were were open to women. Marie Curie really stands out as an anomaly, doesn't she and. Yes aims to Bain that unique fully collaborative relationship between her and a husband Pierre. Yes. From from the very beginning. And the fact that he was in establish. Scientists when they marriage he was quite a bit older. And so he he had a job and a position, and he could offer her a place to work, and she also had teachers and mentors who were who've you'd very positively and who helped her as well, and they were threatened by her genius. I mean PA was not threatened by her genius it saints. That's right, Ruth, Lou and sign thank you so much for joining me. It's interesting to talk to you about laser. And the live is legacy. Onsite grateful to you. Thank you. I want to thank you for your good questions. It was fun to talk to you. Lace Amata died in nineteen sixty eight Ruth Lou and psalms bookies code lace might never life. In physics originally published by the university of California price catch up with the whole series about on Stein's, first wife Malaysia in the science fiction podcast fade, and you can catch me on Twitter at the Tesha Mitchell. Love to hear from the back with you next week from more culture and science with extra spots. You've been listening to an ABC podcast. Discover more great ABC podcasts. Live radio and exclusives. On the IB say listen up.