Category Archives: Myths of Science

Sorry Caroline but Maria got there first!

Astronomer Caroline Herschel observed her first comet on 1 August 1786 an anniversary that was celebrated by various people on Twitter yesterday. Unfortunately many of them, including for example NASA History Office (@NASAhistory), claimed that on this date she became the 1st woman to discover a comet. This is quite simply not true.

Maria Margarethe Kirch (née Winkelmann), the wife of Gottfried Kirch the Astronomer Royal of Berlin, discovered the comet of 1702 (C/1702 H1) on 21 March 1702 that is forty-eight years before Caroline Herschel was born. Unfortunately the discovery was published by her husband and it was he who was incorrectly acknowledged as the discoverer. In 1710 Gottfried admitted the error and publically acknowledged Maria as the discoverer but she was never official credited with the discovery.

Both Maria Kirch and Caroline Herschel were excellent astronomers with much important work to their credit. However credit where credit is due, Caroline was not the first woman to discover a comet, Maria was.

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A double bicentennial – George contra Ada – Reality contra Perception

The end of this year sees a double English bicentennial in the history of computing. On 2 November we celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of mathematician and logician Georg Boole then on 10 December the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of ‘science writer’ Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace. It is an interesting exercise to take a brief look at how these two bicentennials are being perceived in the public sphere.

As I have pointed out in several earlier posts Ada was a member of the minor aristocracy, who, although she never knew her father, had a wealthy well connected mother. She had access to the highest social and intellectual circles of early Victorian London. Despite being mentored and tutored by the best that London had to offer she failed totally in mastering more than elementary mathematics. So, as I have also pointed out more than once, to call her a mathematician is a very poor quality joke. Her only ‘scientific’ contribution was to translate a memoire on Babbage’s Analytical Engine from French into English to which are appended a series of new notes. There is very substantial internal and external evidence that these notes in fact stem from Babbage and not Ada and that she only gave them linguistic form. What we have here is basically a journalistic interview and not a piece of original work. It is a historical fact that she did not write the first computer programme, as is still repeated ad nauseam every time her name is mentioned.

However the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada are banging the advertising drum for her bicentennial on a level comparable to that accorded to Einstein for the centenary of the General Theory of Relativity. On social media ‘Finding Ada’ are obviously planning massive celebrations, which they have already indicated although the exact nature of them has yet to be revealed. More worrying is the publication of the graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (note who gets first billing!) by animator and cartoonist Sydney Padua. The Analytical Engine as of course not the first computer that honour goes to Babbage’s Difference Engine. More important Padua’s novel is not even remotely ‘mostly’ true but largely fictional. This wouldn’t matter that much if said book had not received major media attention. Attention that compounded the error by conveniently forgetting the mostly. The biggest lie in the work of fiction is the claim that Ada was somehow directly involved in the conception and construction of the Analytical engine. In reality she had absolutely nothing to do with either its conception or its construction.

This deliberate misconception has been compounded by a, in social media widely disseminated, attempt to get support for a Lovelace, Babbage Analytical Engine Lego Set. The promoter of this enterprise has written in his blurb:

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is widely credited as the first computer scientist and Charles Babbage (1791-1871) is best remembered for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Together they collaborated on Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine.

Widely credited by whom? If anybody is the first computer scientist in this set up then it’s Babbage. Others such as Leibniz speculated on what we now call computer science long before Ada was born so I think that is another piece of hype that we can commit to the trashcan. Much more important is the fact that they did not collaborate on the Analytical Engine that was solely Babbage’s baby. This factually false hype is compounded in the following tweet from 21 July, which linked to the Lego promotion:

Historical lego [sic] of Ada Lovelace’s conception of the first programmable computer

To give some perspective to the whole issue it is instructive to ask about what in German is called the ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’, best translated as historical impact, of Babbage’s efforts to promote and build his computers, including the, in the mean time, notorious Menabrea memoire, irrespective as to who actually formulated the added notes. The impact of all of Babbage’s computer endeavours on the history of the computer is almost nothing. I say almost because, due to Turing, the notes did play a minor role in the early phases of the post World War II artificial intelligence debate. However one could get the impression from the efforts of the Ada Lovelace fan club, strongly supported by the media that this was a highly significant contribution to the history of computing that deserves to be massively celebrated on the Lovelace bicentennial.

Let us now turn our attention to subject of our other bicentennial celebration, George Boole. Born into a working class family in Lincoln, Boole had little formal education. However his father was a self-educated man with a thirst for knowledge, who instilled the same characteristics in his son. With some assistance he taught himself Latin and Greek and later French, German and Italian in order to be able to read the advanced continental mathematics. His father went bankrupt when he was 16 and he became breadwinner for the family, taking a post as schoolmaster in a small private school. When he was 19 he set up his own small school. Using the library of the local Mechanics Institute he taught himself mathematics. In the 1840s he began to publish original mathematical research in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal with the support of Duncan Gregory, a great great grandson of Newton’s contemporary James Gregory. Boole went on to become one of the leading British mathematicians of the nineteenth century and despite his total lack of formal qualifications he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the newly founded Queen’s College of Cork in 1849.

Although a fascinating figure in the history of mathematics it is Boole the logician, who interests us here. In 1847 Boole published the first version of his logical algebra in the form of a largish pamphlet, Mathematical Analysis of Logic. This was followed in 1854 by an expanded version of his ideas in his An Investigation of the Laws of Thought, on which are founded the Mathematical Theories of Logic and Probability. These publications contain the core of Boolean algebra, the final Boolean algebra was actually produced by Stanley Jevons, only the second non-standard algebra ever to be developed. The first non-standard algebra was Hamilton’s quaternions. For non-mathematical readers standard algebra is the stuff we all learned (and loved!) at school. Boolean algebra was Boole’s greatest contribution to the histories of mathematics, logic and science.

When it first appeared Boole’s logic was large ignored as an irrelevance but as the nineteenth century progressed it was taken up and developed by others, most notably by the German mathematician Ernst Schröder, and provided the tool for much early work in mathematical logic. Around 1930 it was superseded in this area by the mathematical logic of Whitehead’s and Russell’s Principia Mathematica. Boole’s algebraic logic seemed destined for the novelty scrap heap of history until a brilliant young American mathematician wrote his master’s thesis.

Claude Shannon (1916–2001) was a postgrad student of electrical engineering of Vannevar Bush at MIT working on Bush’s electro-mechanical computer the differential analyzer. Having learnt Boolean algebra as an undergraduate Shannon realised that it could be used for the systematic and logical design of electrical switching circuits. In 1937 he published a paper drawn from his master’s thesis, A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits. Shannon switching algebra, applied Boolean algebra, would go on to supply the basis of the hardware design of all modern computers. When people began to write programs for the computers designed with Shannon’s switching algebra it was only natural that they would use Boole’s two-valued (1/0, true/false, on/off) algebra to write those programs. Almost all modern computers are both in their hardware and there software applied Boolean algebra. One can argue, as I have actually done somewhat tongue in cheek in a lecture, that George Boole is the ‘father’ of the modern computer. (Somewhat tongue in cheek, as I don’t actually like the term ‘father of’). The modern computer has of course many fathers and mothers.

In George Boole, as opposed to Babbage and Lovelace, we have a man whose work made a massive real contribution to history of the computer and although both the Universities of Cork and Lincoln are planning major celebration for his bicentennial they have been, up till now largely ignored by the media with the exception of the Irish newspapers who are happy to claim Boole, an Englishman, as one of their own.

The press seems to have decided that a ‘disadvantaged’ (she never was, as opposed to Boole) female ‘scientist’, who just happens to be Byron’s daughter is more newsworthy in the history of the computer than a male mathematician, even if she contributed almost nothing and he contributed very much.

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Filed under History of Computing, History of Mathematics, Ladies of Science, Myths of Science

For those who haven’t been paying attention

Galileo Galilei was found guilty and sentenced by the Inquisition on 22 June 1633; as usual this anniversary has produced a flurry of activity on the Internet much of it unfortunately ill informed. This is just a very brief note for all those who haven’t being paying attention.

The crime of which Galileo was found guilty was “vehement suspicion of heresy” and not heresy. This might appear to some to be splitting hairs but within the theological jurisdiction of the Catholic Church the difference is a highly significant one. Had the Inquisition found him guilty of heresy then a death sentence would have followed almost automatically. As they only found him guilty of the lesser charge “vehement suspicion of heresy” it was possible for him to be sentenced to life in prison commuted the next day to house arrest.

And please Richard Coles, and anybody else stupid enough to quote it, the claim that he said Eppur si muove (and yet it moves) upon being sentenced is almost certainty a myth.

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Three strikes and you’re out!

Recently on Twitter I stumbled across the cartoon entitled An Age-Old Argument, reproduced below. It’s not the first time I’ve come across it, as it’s one of those things that does the rounds of the social media sites at regular intervals. This time it was tweeted by Calestous Juma (@calestous) who describes himself as a Harvard Kennedy School Professor working on science & innovation for development. In his tweet he asked for, ‪”Any‪ more examples of such arguments? scientific evidence”. It had been retweeted by @AnneGlover_EU , that is Anne Glover Former Chief Scientific Adviser to Jose Manuel Barroso 2012-2014. These are obviously both people who, when it comes to science, could be expected to know what they are talking about. However it becomes clear that when one analyses the cartoon, which they are boosting that this is not the case.

An age-old argument

As you can see the cartoon has four panels of which the first three supposedly depict episodes from the history of science where ignorant people ignored scientific evidence in the same way as denialists do now in the climate debate. Juma and Glover, like many others, obviously think that the cartoonist has scored three home runs in his historical depictions. However as anyone knowledgeable of the history of science can see what we have here are three hoary old myths of science leading to three strikes and an out. Put differently, people like Juma and Glover should not be spreading ignorant and misleading rubbish as this.

Our first panel has the people in the Middle Ages believing that the earth was flat and refusing to believe that it’s a sphere. This is probably the most widespread and stupid myth in the whole history of science. Since antiquity nobody in Europe qualified to express an opinion on the subject believed that the earth was anything but a sphere. The claim that Europeans in the Middle Ages believed that the world was flat is a baseless myth created in the nineteenth century. So no homerun, strike one!

To be quite honest the second panel baffles me as it depicts something that never ever took place anywhere at anytime. Gravity is a term used since antiquity to describe the fact that if you let something drop it falls to the ground. Nobody ever challenged this purely descriptive term. In the late seventeenth century Isaac Newton demonstrated that the same force that causes things on earth to fall to the ground also prevents orbiting planets from shooting off at a tangent to their orbits, as the law of inertia would require, thus creating the idea of universal gravity. On the whole those capable of understanding Newton’s mathematical theories accepted them but the Cartesians and the Leibnizians objected to Newton’s inability to explain just what exactly the force of gravity was or should be. Their mechanical philosophical understanding of nature making them suspicious of Newton’s action at a distance. This scientific debate took place in the eighteenth century not the seventeenth and never included any denial of the phenomenon of gravity. So no homerun, strike two!

We now turn to the one panel that some people might consider depicts historical reality. We have a man in the nineteenth century rejecting the theory of evolution on the basis of religion. Images of the infamous Oxford debate, between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley, and Samuel, ‘Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce, spring instantly to mind. Unfortunately we have to do with another modern myth. There was no significant religious objection to the theory of evolution during the nineteenth century. I realise here that I’m stepping outside of my historical comfort zone (nineteenth century, life sciences!) and some might challenge my competence to make such a claim. However I offer as substantiation a couple of blog posts by historian and philosopher of biology, and Renaissance Mathematicus friend, John Wilkins at Evolving Thoughts, herehere and here that explain the subject. So no homerun, strike three and out!

I do wish scientist and science communicators who wish to promote scientific thinking against the denialists and their ilk would desist from spreading and propagating rubbishy myths of science, as history of science.

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Creating a holy cow.

Whenever I think that the deification of Ada Lovelace can’t get anymore ridiculous somebody comes along and ups the ante. The latest idiocy was posted on Twitter by the comedian Stephen Fry (of whom I’m a big fan!). Mr Fry tweeted:

Ada Lovelace & Alan Turing for the next £20 note! Nominate here [link removed] Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. [my emphasis]

My comments will only concern Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, although the comment I have highlighted also has issues when applied to Alan Turing.

Heroic pioneers in the face of prejudice. Let us briefly examine the prejudice that the Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, suffered. Born into the English aristocracy she unfortunately lost her “mad, bad and dangerous to know” father at the tender age of one month. However her mother’s family were extremely wealthy, the main reason Byron who was destitute had married her, and so Ada lacked for nothing throughout her childhood. It should be also pointed out that her mother enjoyed a very high social status, despite her disastrous marriage.

She was, as a young women, tutored and mentored by the elite of the scientific community in Victorian London, including Charles Babbage, Augustus De Morgan, Sir Charles Wheatstone and Mary Somerville, all of whom helped and encouraged her in her scientific studies. She married the wealthy Baron William King who was soon elevated to Earl of Lovelace and who also supported her scientific endeavours without any restrictions. Somehow I fail to see to what the term prejudice could possibly be referring. Rich, pampered and supported by the very elite of London’s scientific community doesn’t sound like prejudice to me.

It was Wheatstone who suggested that she translate the Menabrea memoire on the Analytical Engine in emulation of her mentor Mary Somerville’s translation of Laplace, a far greater and much more complex work. So there is no suggestion of the pioneer here. Somerville herself was just one of several women, albeit the greatest, who wrote works popularizing the mathematical sciences in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. So Ada was in no way a pioneer but rather following the crowd.

It might be argued that her notations to the memoire qualify her as a pioneer, however I remain firmly convinced that the notes were very much a Babbage-Lovelace co-production with Babbage providing the content and Lovelace the turns of phrase. At best she was a scientific journalist or communicator. The pioneer was Babbage. There is strong evidence to support this interpretation, which gets swept under the carpet by the acolytes of the Cult of the Holy Saint Ada.

I shall be writing a longer post on one central aspect of the cult’s mythologizing later in the summer so stayed tuned.

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A twelve-year flash of genius

Last week the Observer had an article celebrating the 250th anniversary of James Watt’s invention of the separate condenser steam engine, James Watt and the sabbath stroll that created the industrial revolution, that manages to perpetuate a whole series of myths about the history of science and technology despite being based on genuine historical facts. The title alone made not only myself, but also numerous others, cringe for two different reasons the second of which, concerning the Industrial Revolution, I will elucidate later. First of all I shall analyse a very crass form of the flash of genius myth that forms the central theme of the article.

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819) by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of James Watt (1736–1819)
by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commons

So what is the flash of genius that Robin McKie, Science Editor of The Observe, presents to us here? Let him tell us in his own words:

In 1765, Watt – then an instrument-maker based at Glasgow University – was working on a Newcomen pump, a state-of-the-art device in which steam pushed a piston through a cylinder. Water was then sprayed into the cylinder, cooling it and causing the steam to condense, creating a vacuum behind the piston that sucked it back into its original position. More steam was pumped in and the piston was pushed forward again. It was a very powerful process but also a very inefficient one. Constantly heating and then cooling the engine’s huge cylinder required huge amounts of heat and coal. Steam engines like these had only limited usefulness. Then Watt set off on his walk. When he was halfway across the green, the idea of a separate condenser came into his mind. Such a device would, he realised, create a vacuum that would help suck in the engine’s piston but still allow its main cylinder to operate at a constant temperature.

What is the source for this astounding story? In fact it is to be found in Watt’s own reminiscences. Let us examine the original:

I had gone to take a walk on a fine Sabbath afternoon. I had entered the Green by the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street – had passed the old washing-house. I was thinking about the engine at the time and had gone as far as the Herd’s house when the idea came into my mind, that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication was made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it, and might there condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the Golf-house when the whole thing was arranged in my mind.[1]

So there we have it, a genuine example of the decried and much derided by grumpy old historians of science and technology, such as myself, flash of genius. It exists or does it? What McKie neglects to mention but which Uglow supplies in great detail is the long, complex and convoluted back-story that led up to this insight and the struggles that followed it.

In 1757, a full eight years before that Sabbath stroll, James Watt was established in Glasgow as a maker and repairer of scientific and musical instruments, a trade that he had travelled to London to learn. He had been approached by John Robinson, who had the visionary idea of carriages driven by steam-power and who wanted Watt to build him a model of one. At this point in his life Watt admits he was totally ignorant on the subject but intrigued by Robinson’s idea he plunged into a study of all he could find concerning the work of those early steam pioneers Papin, Savery, and Newcomen after his first attempt to construct a steam-engine had failed dismally. At this point in his life Watt had never actually seen a working steam engine but fate intervened. In the summer of 1757 Watt was appointed Mathematical Instrument Maker at the University of Glasgow. Over the years Watt continued his researches into steam power, which I won’t go into detail here, and in 1760 Watt’s friend Professor Anderson commissioned Watt to bring the University’s defective demonstration model Newcomen steam-engine into working order. It was the chronic inefficiency of this machine that spurred Watt into trying to develop a better more efficient steam-engine. Efforts that would finally lead to his ‘spontaneous’ revelation on that Sabbath afternoon in 1765!

What we have here is in no way a flash of genius but the end result of eight full years of hard work, a case of the solution to a problem finally appearing in “the prepared mind,” to quote Louis Pasteur.

Watt’s insight was however not really the solution to his problem but the outline of a path that would lead him to that solution. McKie hints at this with the half sentence, “Four years later, he patented the condenser…” McKie had previous informed us the Watt had very quickly made a model of his idea…

Watt's first model condenser. Science Museum London Source Wikimedia Commons

Watt’s first model condenser. Science Museum London
Source Wikimedia Commons

…but what he doesn’t tell us is that turning that model into a real functioning steam-engine turned out to be fraught with problem that would occupy all of Watt’s ingenuity for the next four years and therefor the gap between insight and patent. What seemed at first to be a moment in time that revolutionised the steam engine has now turned into twelve years of research, experimentation and very hard work. Not quite the picture that McKie presents us with in his article. In fact it would 1776 before Watt’s endeavours would finally flower in the installation of the first Boulton-Watt steam-engine almost twenty years after he first began his investigations in steam power. Not quite the instant revolution McKie seems to want to propagate.

McKie’s article contains an equally problematic myth in the second half of the sentence quoted in the previous paragraph, “…and triggered the industrial revolution”. We have now arrived at the second myth contained in the article’s title.

There is a cosy little myth much loved in Britain that the Industrial Revolution equals steam power and steam power equals James Watt therefore James Watt equals the Industrial Revolutions. In a slightly more sophisticated form this is what McKie is serving up here. In whatever form it gets served up, it is of course, viewed historically, total rubbish. I’m not going to produce a complete historical analysis of the contributory factors that formed the Industrial Revolution in a blog post but it suffices to state that they were many and varied forming a complex matrix of forces driving this revolution onwards. Watt’s improvements to the steam-engine constitute only one of those factors. In fact the Industrial Revolution was in full swing well before Boulton & Watt brought their first steam-engine onto the market. If it hadn’t been then Watt might never have found the financial and technical help that he needed to realise his ‘flash of genius’.

One central aspect of the Industrial Revolution was a radical new approach to production. Home piecework and small-scale artisanal workshops were replaced by large-scale central manufactories organised on mass production schemes. Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory constructed in 1761 was one of the leaders of this movement.

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773 Source: Wikimedia Commons

View of the manufactory of Boulton & Fothergill in Birmingham by Francis Eginton 1773
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It was Boulton, who required more power to drive his manufactory, who provided the finance and the engineering expertise Watt needed to finally produce his improved steam-engine. At best it can be confidently claimed that the Boulton & Watt steam-engine accelerated the progress of the Industrial Revolution; it didn’t create it as McKie claims.

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda Source: Wikimedia Commos

Matthew Boulton by Carl Frederik von Breda
Source: Wikimedia Commos

Even worse, as has been pointed out by various people on the Internet and in letters replying to McKie’s article, Boulton & Watt both through their market dominance and through their skilful legal manipulation of deliberately vaguely worded patents prevented or delayed several important developments in the Industrial Revolution, functioning as a brake to progress rather than a promoter. The most famous example was Watt’s opposition to the high-pressure steam-engine, ironically necessary in order to power the steam carriages that triggered Watt’s initial interest in steam power, which almost certainly set back the introduction of the railways by several decades.

What we have here is a classical example of a journalist reducing complex historical context to over simplified journalese, thereby creating or perpetuating myths rather than transmitting useful historical information.

[1] Recounted by JW in 1817 to the Glasgow engineer Robert Hunt: Reminiscences of James Watt, Transactions of Glasgow Archaeological Society, 1859 in Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men, faber and faber, 2002, PB, p. 101

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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 deGasse 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 Meiterium in her honour. There are 118 know elements of which 98 are considered to occur naturally and the other twenty are products of the laboratory. Only ten 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.

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