Unsung? I hardly think so

Recently, New Scientist had an article about Emmy Noether because 2015 is the one hundredth anniversary of Noether’s Theorem. I’m not going to link to it because it’s behind a pay wall. A couple of days later they had an open access follow up article entitled, Unsung heroines: Six women denied scientific glory. This is the latest is a fairly long line of such articles in the Internet, as part of the widespread campaign to increase the profile of women in the history of science. Now in general I approve of these attempts and from time to time make a contribution myself here at the Renaissance Mathematicus, however I think the whole concept is based on a misconception and also the quality of the potted biographies that these post contain are often highly inaccurate or even downright false. I will deal with the particular biography that inspired the title of this post later but first I want to address a more general issue.

Such posts as the New Scientist one are based on the premise that the women they feature have slipped through the net of public awareness because they are women, although this might be a contributory factor, I think the main reason is a very different one that not only affects female scientists but the vast majority of scientists in general. I call this the Einstein-Curie syndrome. The popular history of science is presented as a very short list of exulted geniuses who, usually single-handedly, change the course of (scientific) history. If you ask an averagely intelligent, averagely educated person, who is not a scientist or historian of science, to name a scientist chances are near to certain they will say either Galileo, Newton, Einstein or Stephen Hawking or maybe Darwin and I seriously think even Darwin is a maybe. Alternatively they might name one of the high profile television science presenters, depending on age, Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Neil deGrasse Tyson or Brian Cox. Almost nobody else gets a look in. If you were to specify that they should name a female scientist almost all will respond Marie Curie. In fact the last result has led various women writers to protest that we have much too much Marie Curie as role model for women in STEM. It is not that women in the history of science get ignored, it’s that almost all scientist in the history of science get ignored in favour of the litany of great names.

If we take a brief closer look at this phenomenon with respect to the revolution in physics in the first half of the twentieth century then good old Albert cast a vast shadow over all his contemporaries. He is not just the most well know scientist, he is one of the iconic figures of the twentieth century. Most non-scientists will probably not know where to place the name Max Planck, although here in Germany they might have heard of it because the official German State research institutes are named after him. Schrödinger might fare a little better because of his cat but beyond awareness of the term ‘Schrödinger’s cat’ you would probably draw a blank. The same is true of Heisenberg and his ‘uncertainty principle’, of which the questioned Mr or Mrs Normal will almost certainly have a false conception. Throw in Louis de Broglie, who after all was a Nobel laureate, and you will just provoke a blank stare. People are not ignorant of women in the history of science; people are ignorant of the history of science.

I now want to turn to that which provoked this post and its title, the article in question starts with a potted biography of the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, to call Lise Meitner unsung is a straight up abuse of language, which I will come back to later. I first want to deal with some serious inaccuracies in the article and in particular the all too oft repeated Nobel Prize story and why the version that usually gets peddled is highly misleading.

Lise Meitner in 1906 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner in 1906
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The potted biography starts reasonably OK:

As with Noether, Meitner’s career was blighted by discrimination, and not just because of her sex. Meitner studied physics at the University of Vienna, then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, before moving to Berlin, Germany, to further her education. She attended a series of lectures by Max Planck – the first woman to be allowed to do so – and became his assistant.

It neglects to mention that Meitner got a PhD in physics in Vienna in 1906 as only the second woman to do so. She went to Berlin in 1907, after one year post-doc in Vienna. In Berlin she was only allowed to study as a guest as women were first allowed into the Prussian universities in 1909. She served as Planck’s assistant from 1912 till 1915. In the next paragraph the biography goes for pathos rather than fact: She later began to work with chemist Otto Hahn, but was refused access to his laboratory and was forced to work in a broom cupboard. When Hahn’s research group moved to a different institute, Meitner was offered an unpaid job as his “guest”. The situation for young academics at German universities in the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century was not very rosy no matter what their sex. On the whole you either had rich parents, a rich sponsor or you were the proverbial destitute student. Meitner had wealthy parent, who were prepared to pay for her efforts to become a physicist. Both Meitner and Hahn worked as unpaid guest in the former carpentry shop (not a broom cupboard) of the Chemistry Institute of the Berlin University. In 1912 they got their own research section at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry although initially Meitner remained an unpaid guest.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1913 she became a paid member of staff. From 1914 to 1916 she served as a nurse in the First World War. In 1916 she and Hahn returned to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute and resumed their research work. In 1918 Meitner was appointed head of her own department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. As you can see a slightly different story to the one offered in New Scientist and it doesn’t end here. In 1922 Meitner habilitated on the University of Berlin thus qualifying to be appointed professor and in 1926 she was appointed the first ever female professor of physics at a German university. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Meitner, a Jew, lost her position at the university but retained her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute until 1938 when she was finally forced to flee the country, greatly assisted by Hahn. She made her way to Sweden where she obtained a position at the Nobel Institute. Meitner was an established physicist who had held important academic teaching and research posts in the thirty years before she fled Germany. She and Hahn had made many important discoveries and had produced a significant list of publications. She was a leading nuclear physicist with an international reputation, not quite the picture that the New Scientist biographer imparts. After she had left Germany she and Hahn continued to work together by post. We have now reached that ominous Nobel Prize story:

In 1938, because of her Jewish heritage, Meitner was forced to leave Nazi Germany. She eventually fled to Sweden, with Hahn’s help. Hahn remained in Germany, but he and Meitner continued to correspond and in 1939 they discovered a process they called nuclear fission. In possibly the most egregious example of a scientist being overlooked for an award, it was Hahn who received the 1944 Nobel prize for the discovery. She was mentioned three times in the presentation speech, however, and Hahn named her nine times in his Nobel lecture.

A clear-cut case of prejudice against women in science, or? Actually if you look at the full facts it isn’t anyway near as clear-cut as it seems, in fact the whole situation was completely different. In 1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann carried out a series of experiments in Berlin that led to nuclear fission, at that time completely unknown, Hahn realised that fission must have occurred but could not clearly explain the results of his experiment.

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München Source: Wikimedia Commons

Nuclear Fission Experimental Apparatus 1938: Reconstruction Deutsches Museum München
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Hahn corresponded with Meitner who together with her nephew Otto Frisch worked out the theory that explained nuclear fission. Hahn published the results of his experiments in a joint paper with Strassmann in 1938. Meitner and Frisch published the theory of nuclear fission in 1939. In 1944 Otto Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his experiment, which demonstrated the existence of nuclear fission. Meitner had no part in these experiments and so should not have been included in the prize as awarded. Strassmann, however, contributed both to the experiments and the subsequent publication so it is more than justified to ask why he was not included in the award of the prize. It is not unusual in the history of the Nobel Prize for the prize to be jointly awarded to the theory behind a discovery and the discovery itself, so it would also be justified to ask why the Nobel committee did not chose to do so on this occasion. However if they had done so then not only Meitner but also Frisch should have been considered for the prize. If on this assumption we add together all of those who had a right to the prize we come to a total of four, Hahn & Strassmann, and Meitner & Frisch, which of course breaks the Nobel Prize rule of maximal three laureates pro prize. Who gets left out? It would of course also be legitimate to ask why Meitner and Frisch were not awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for the theory of nuclear fission; they had certainly earned it. This is a question that neither I nor anybody else can answer and the Nobel Prize committee does not comment on those who do not receive an award, no matter how justified such an award might be. Whatever, although Meitner can be considered to have been done an injustice in not being awarded a Nobel, she didn’t have a claim on the prize awarded to Hahn in 1944 as is so often claimed by her feminist supporters. We now come to the title of this post.

The New Scientist article claims that Lise Meitner is an unsung heroine who was denied scientific glory. This statement is pure and absolute rubbish. Lise Meitner received five honorary doctorates, was elected to twelve major academic societies, she was elected Woman of the Year in America in 1946.

Lise Meitner 1946 Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lise Meitner 1946
Source: Wikimedia Commons

She received the Max Planck medal of the German Physical Society, the Otto Hahn Prize of the German Chemical Society, the peace class of the Pour le mérite (the highest German State award for scientists), the Enrico Fermi Award of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, awarded personally by President Lyndon B. Johnson and there is a statue of her in the garden of the Humboldt University in Berlin. On top of this she received numerous awards and honours in her native Austria. Somehow that doesn’t quite fit the description unsung. Just to make the point even more obvious an institute at the University of Berlin, a crater on the moon, and another crater on venus, as well as an asteroid all bear the name Meitner in her honour.

Can it be that people put too much emphasis on Nobel prizes, for which Meitner was nominated numerous times but never won? The disproportionality of this way of thinking is shown by Meitner last and greatest honour. Element 109 is named Meitnerium in her honour. There are 118 know elements of which 91 are considered to occur naturally and the other twenty-seven are products of the laboratory. Only ten thirteen of the elements are named after people so this honour is in every way greater than a mere Nobel Prize. Strangely the New Scientist article mentions this honour in a very off hand way in its final sentence, as if it was of little significance. Otto Hahn does not have an element named after him.

Added 5 May 2015:

Over on his blog John Ptak has a post about a wonderful American comic book that mentions Lise Meitner and her role in the history of the atomic bomb. With John’s permission I have added the the comic panel in question below.

Source: Ptak Science Books

Source: Ptak Science Books

If you don’t already visit Mr Ptak’s delightful Internet book emporium you should, it’s a cornucopia of scientific and technological delight.


Filed under History of Physics, History of science, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

19 responses to “Unsung? I hardly think so

  1. jimhexis

    If you’re compiling a list of people who should have won Nobel prizes, surely Gilbert Lewis would be near the top of the list. They teach his fundamental contributions even in high school chemistry classes—Lewis structures, Lewis acids, etc. In the history of chemistry he plays a role no less central than Faraday or Maxwell did in physics,; but for a host of reasons, most of them involving professional feuds and personality clashes, he never got the prize.

    You’re certainly right that people can’t think of very many physicists, but the chemists are doomed to even more comprehensive oblivion.

  2. Great article as always. I agree that there is an Einstein-Currie syndrome and his causes people focus on Curie too much. This results in neglecting other wonderful people in science. I think at freshman year, students should be taught “History of X” (X=physics, chemistry, math etc.) for a whole year.

    Meitner was also offered a job in Prague University which she refused. She bargained with Fischer to get a raise ( eventually, from 1500 marks/year to 3000 marks/year). So, she even had the luxury of refusing offers. I have recently finished reading The Kaiser’s Chemists: Science and Modernization in Imperial Germany. Here is a quote from the book:

    “As an Austrian women, a Jew and a physicist, Meitner’s presence meant little to the German chemists….with the nonposition of unsalaried “guest”.”


    • Phillip Helbig

      “Meitner was also offered a job in Prague University which she refused.”

      Felix Klein was offered a job in Göttingen and refused—because he thought it would be inappropriate for him to be higher in the hierarchy than Noether.

    • Phillip Helbig

      Right! At least I am not confusing Felix and Oskar Klein! Or Oscar and Oskar Klein!

  3. Phillip Helbig

    Currie —> Curie

  4. Phillip Helbig

    “Otto Hahn does not have an element named after him.”

    True. I was sure that I had heard of hahnium, and indeed I had, but it was a provisional name (along with nielsbohrium and joliotium) for dubnium.

    (My guess is that the suggestion was nielsbohrium instead of just bohrium since in German this would be Bohr, easily confused with Bor (boron).)

  5. Phillip Helbig

    “Can it be that people put too much emphasis on Nobel prizes, for which Meitner was nominated numerous times but never won?”

    Probably to some extent, in that if a woman doesn’t get a Nobel Prize, it is seen as a great injustice. However, the lack of a Nobel Prize hasn’t made Hawking unsung. There are at least as many “obvious” male candidates for the Nobel Prize who never won.

    Note that Marie Curie is one of the few people to be awarded the Nobel Prize more than once, and IIRC the only person to get it for two different scientific disciplines (chemistry and physics). (Some have received more than one prize in the same discipline, and Pauling received one for peace and one for chemistry.)

    As you say, Meitner was hardly unsung and anyone achieving her stature should be happy. I’m reminded of Chip Arp, who was always complaining how he was ignored by the astronomical community, especially in his books. In one such book, it mentions on the dust jacket that he was a staff astronomer for 29 years at what was then the most important observatory in the world, and at the time of writing was on the staff of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics. Most astronomers would be happy to experience that sort of ignorance! (Actually, he was some sort of guest at MPA, IIRC Simon White was instrumental in getting him to come there after his fortunes in the States took a turn for the worse; I don’t know if he was paid there or not (he was in retirement age by that time anyway).

  6. I wouldn’t call Franklin unsung either. She’s had the lion’s share of attention during the last 20 years or so (especially on the 50th anniversary in 2003), such that W/C are in popular accounts now usually portrayed as pure villains in the story, and Saint Rosalyn the martyr is the real story of DNA.

    IN chemistry, neither Mendeleev, G.N. Lewis, Christopher Ingold, nor Carl Djerassi won a Nobel Prize.

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  8. Mike Jacovides

    There’s a story that S.N. Bose, after being asked about not having received a Nobel, replied, “I have got all the recognition i deserve.” I can’t figure out whether the story is true or whether he said that after Dirac named bosons after him.

  9. You said only ten elements are named after people but I count thirteen. Curie, Einstein, Fermi, Mendeleev, Nobel, Lawrence, Rutherford, Seaborg, Bohr, Meitner, Roentgen, Copernicus, Flerov. Still a lot more select that Nobel laureates, of course.

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  13. wellerstein

    On Meitner’s lack of prize, Ruth Lewis Sime (in _Lise Meitner, a Life in Physics_), suggests several reasons. One was that she herself publicly deferred to Hahn on this matter, for whatever reasons (she treated herself deferentially toward him her entire life). There was also a belief shared by many (including, apparently, Hahn) that Manne Siegbahn, at whose institute Meitner worked in Sweden while in exile and whom she ended up making quite an enemy of, blocked it (her difficulties with Siegbahn easily take up half of the book). Which is to say, like many stories in the history of science, it is complicated.

    But I would suggest that it is not at all unimaginable that her sex played a role in both of the above suggested reasons (her unwillingness to publicly advocate for herself, her difficult time with Siegbahn), either. Or that even if it was none of the above, that it still didn’t matter. Sexual prejudice (like racial prejudice, class prejudice, etc.) is not a bit that gets flipped on or off; it permeates societies, it affects all sorts of decisions and judgments large and small. It is remarkable that many eminent contemporaries of Meitner were deeply angered she was never given the Nobel in Physics (I don’t know of any Strassmann apologists, by comparison; many thought both Meitner and Frisch should have been given the Physics prize jointly). So I think it is not ahistorical to suggest there was some deliberate injustice done.

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