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Lise Meitner: a 20th century life in physics


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Lise Meitner was among the great physicists whose work spanned the development of atomic and nuclear physics in the 20th century. She identified herself as a physicist above all else, but she was also a ‘non-Aryan’ who lost nearly everything when forced out of Germany, and a woman whose success did not transfer into exile. When nuclear fission was discovered in 1938, all came together: unjust exclusion, a broken friendship, lasting damage to her scientific reputation. For Lise Meitner, the history of her scientific work is inseparable from the turbulent history of her time.
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I believe all young people think about how they would like
their lives to develop; when I did so I always arrived at the
conclusion that life need not be easy provided only it was not
empty. And this wish I have been granted. That life has not
always been easy – the first and second world wars and their
consequences saw to that – while for the fact that it has indeed
been full, I have to thank the wonderful development of
physics during my lifetime and the great and lovable person-
alities with whom my work in physics brought me in contact1.
Lise Meitner wrote these lines when she was in her mid-
eighties, looking back on the physics she had known as a
‘magic musical accompaniment to my life’. She had con-
tributed to the development of 20th century physics, from
her early days in radioactivity, to her pioneering work in
nuclear physics, to the discovery of nuclear fission and
beyond. And she had been prominent, with a highly visible
career that began the integration of women into science.
Yet her account is sketchy. She barely touches on her
struggles for education and acceptance, and says nothing
of her forced emigration from Germany, her shattered ca-
reer, or her exclusion from recognition that she deserved.
Meitner was a very private person. She never wrote an
autobiography, nor would she authorize a biography dur-
ing her lifetime. All the more remarkable then, is the
large collection of her personal papers at the Churchill
Archives Centre in Cambridge, which includes diaries,
notes, and most importantly, correspondence. Together
with her scientific publications, these papers have made
it possible to illuminate her life and work2. It was an
exceptional life, full of powerful contrasts, with unequal
measures of independence and injustice, success and
loss, friendship and betrayal.
Lise was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight
children of Philipp, a lawyer, and Hedwig (née Skovran)
Meitner. The home was filled with friends, liberal poli-
tics, and music, and Lise would always remember the
‘extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere’ in
which she grew up. Although the family background was
entirely Jewish, the religion seems to have played no role
in the children’s upbringing. Eventually all the Meitner
siblings were baptized as adults, Lise as a Protestant in
1908. And all, including the five daughters, would pursue
an advanced education.
0160-9327/99/$ – see front matter © 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved. PII: S0160-9327(00)01397-1 Endeavour Vol. 26(1) 2002 27
Lise Meitner:
a 20th century life in physics
Ruth Lewin Sime
Lise Meitner was among the great physicists whose work spanned the development of atomic and nuclear
physics in the 20th century. She identified herself as a physicist above all else, but she was also a ‘non-
Aryan’ who lost nearly everything when forced out of Germany, and a woman whose success did not
transfer into exile. When nuclear fission was discovered in 1938, all came together: unjust exclusion, a
broken friendship, lasting damage to her scientific reputation. For Lise Meitner, the history of her scientific
work is inseparable from the turbulent history of her time.
Ruth Lewin Sime
Is a physical chemist who recently retired from teaching chemistry
at Sacramento City College in California. She came to history of
science and Lise Meitner through a course she taught in women
studies, and her biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics was pub-
lished in 1996. Her current project is a study of Otto Hahn and Max
von Laue from 1933 into the postwar years.
Figure 1 Meitner, around 1930. A heavy smoker who
worked in radioactivity, Meitner lived to the age of 90. Credit:
Atelier Lotter Meitner-Graf, courtesy Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
Archives, Berlin.
This is noteworthy because Austria was among the least
progressive countries in Europe with respect to women’s
education (only Germany and Turkey were worse) and
public schooling for girls ended at age 14. But in 1897
women were granted admission to Austrian universities.
After taking intensive private lessons to prepare, Lise
entered the University of Vienna in 1901.
There Ludwig Boltzmann was Lise’s professor for the
entire physics course. Boltzmann was a renowned
theoretical physicist, a social progressive who believed in
women’s education, and, it has been said, the most charis-
matic physics teacher of the 19th and the 20th centuries.
He imparted to her ‘the vision of physics as a battle for
ultimate truth, a vision she never lost’3. Meitner’s goal in
physics would be theoretical understanding; her means,
nearly always, would be experiment. In 1906 she became
only the second woman in Vienna to receive a doctorate
in physics.
Still, the only obvious profession for the new Fräulein
Doktor was teaching in a girls’ school. Lise signed up for
teaching-practice, but it is clear that she never had the
slightest interest in it. Instead, she returned each evening
to the physics laboratory and learned radioactivity tech-
niques from Stefan Meyer, one of the early researchers in
the field. After publishing several papers on her own, she
decided she needed a few semesters of study in Berlin.
She would stay for 31 years.
Early years in Berlin
When Lise got to Berlin in the late summer of 1907, she
discovered that Prussian universities were closed to
women. Afemale student was still a complete oddity, and
Lise withdrew into a reserve that ‘bordered on fear of
people’. Nevertheless she approached Max Planck for
permission to attend his lectures. Planck did not favour
university education for women, but he took an interest in
Lise, eventually becoming her mentor and a close friend,
the second great theoretical physicist to influence her
approach to physics. Lise soon began radioactivity ex-
periments with Otto Hahn, a chemist just her age, who
had spent a year with Ernest Rutherford in Montreal. The
two complemented each other from the start. He was as
charming and sociable as she was introverted and shy, and
radioactivity benefited from the interdisciplinary approach:
she knew the mathematics and physics that he had never
studied, while he was a very good chemist. The fact that
Lise was a barely tolerated unpaid ‘guest’ mattered far
less to her at first than the chance to do research.
In 1907 radioactivity research was accessible but clut-
tered, with a growing list of over 20 radioactive substances,
each thought to be a new element. Meitner and Hahn be-
gan systematically investigating all known beta emitters.
They were the first to clearly describe and use the phe-
nomenon of radioactive recoil, and discovered several new
radioactive substances. Patterns finally emerged from the
profusion of radioactivity data, and in 1913 Frederick
Soddy and Kasimir Fajans formulated the group displace-
ment laws and the concept of isotopy. These, together
with Rutherford’s nuclear atom, Niels Bohr’s hydrogen
atom, and the x-ray studies of H.G.J. Moseley, immensely
clarified the atomic picture. Now nuclear charge, not
mass, characterized the elements; radioactivity originated
in the nucleus; and the radioactive substances were incor-
porated into the periodic table. Hahn and Meitner imme-
diately used the new concepts to search for the ‘missing’
radioactive element between thorium and uranium. They
reported their discovery of element 91, protactinium, in
1918. A superb achievement, it marked the end of their
first period of collaboration, and coincided with the end
of the classical period of radioactivity research4.
Radioactivity evolves into nuclear physics
Hahn and Meitner moved from the university to the Kaiser
Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry (KWI) in the Berlin sub-
urb of Dahlem when it opened in 1912. Hahn started out
as a professor while Meitner was still a ‘guest’, but she
soon progressed: by 1913 she too had a salaried position
in the institute, then her own physics section in 1917, and
the title of professor in 1919. Each step was a first for
women in German science. Her independence assured,
Meitner turned to the emerging field that would eventu-
ally be known as nuclear physics.
In the 1920s, radioactive substances and their emissions
remained the primary source of nuclear data. Meitner and
her coworkers investigated the entire range of nuclear
phenomena, with much of it, including her studies of
gamma-ray absorption, closely tied to theoretical devel-
opments. Her studies of beta-gamma spectra engaged her
in a productive controversy with Charles D. Ellis of
Rutherford’s group in Cambridge. The two held opposite
views of the sequence of radioactive decay and the exist-
ence of a continuous beta spectrum. In 1925 Meitner
proved her contention that gamma emission follows alpha
or beta decay, while in 1927 Ellis proved that the primary
beta spectrum is continuous. The finding deeply disturbed
Meitner and others who believed that quantization and
energy conservation must extend to nuclear processes5. In
1930 Wolfgang Pauli proposed the neutrino as a ‘desperate
28 Endeavour Vol. 26(1) 2002
Figure 2 Otto Hahn and Meitner worked together in Emil Fischer’s institute in the
University of Berlin from 1907 to 1912. Electroscopes were used for measuring
alpha and beta radiation. Credit: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft Archives, Berlin.
remedy’, but other severe theoretical problems associated
with electrons in the nucleus were resolved only when the
neutron, discovered by James Chadwick in 1932, was de-
termined to be a fundamental particle. That year, Meitner
used neutron reactions to measure neutron mass, and when
the positron was discovered she was the first to report
electron–positron pair formation and to detect positrons
from a non-cosmic source6.
The 1920s were a golden age for physics, and Meitner
flourished. No longer the insecure outsider who had first
arrived in Berlin, she was an assertive professor (‘short,
dark, and bossy’ her nephew would tease) for whom the
international physics community was home. Her circle in
Berlin included Einstein, Planck, Max von Laue, Gustav
Hertz, Fritz Haber, and Erwin Schrödinger; in Göttingen
her close friends were James Franck and Max Born and in
Hamburg, Otto Stern; her contacts with Ellis and Chadwick
were frequent and warm. Her friendships with Franck and
Bohr were so spontaneous that they addressed each other
with the familiar ‘Du’ almost instantly. Meitner and Hahn
circumspectly avoided such familiarity for many years
but they finally relented in 1922 when Otto and Edith
Hahn’s only son was born and Lise became the baby’s
godmother. Then Lise would speak of Otto as her
‘colleague-brother’ (Fachbruder) and best friend.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, many of Meitner’s
colleagues were forced out of the universities and left
Germany. She too considered emigrating, but her position
at the KWI seemed secure and she clung to it. ‘I built [the
physics section] from the first little stone,’ she reflected
later. ‘It was, so to speak, my life’s work, and it seemed
so terribly hard to separate myself from it’. Only after she
left Germany did Meitner come to believe that her de-
cision to stay after 1933 had been ‘very wrong, not only
from a practical point of view, but also morally’7.
The search for transuranium elements
In 1934 Enrico Fermi irradiated uranium with neutrons,
detected several new activities, and suggested that these
might be new elements beyond uranium. Meitner was fas-
cinated, and the neutron experiments corresponded exactly
to her area of expertise. She realized, however, that ‘one
could not get ahead with nuclear physics alone. The help
of an outstanding chemist like Otto was needed to get
results’8. Hahn hesitated, then agreed; they were joined
by a young chemist, Fritz Strassmann, soon after. For the
next four years, the Berlin team compiled a growing list
of new elements. Only after they discovered nuclear
fission in 1938 was it clear that all their ‘transuranium’
elements were false: all were fission fragments.
Their investigation was framed by two assumptions that
were later proved wrong. Physicists believed that nuclei
were inherently stable and that nuclear changes would al-
ways be small. Chemists classified uranium as a transition
element (below tungsten on the periodic table) and as-
sumed that the elements 93, 94, etc. would also be tran-
sition elements, with chemical properties similar to rhenium,
osmium, etc. By 1937 the Berlin team identified two long
chains of beta emitters with just these properties, which
they attributed to transuranium elements from 93 to 97.
Later, after the fission discovery, Hahn would blame
physics for having led the investigation astray – without
mentioning that chemistry also contributed a false assump-
tion. Their publications, however, show the chemists
growing more confident with each new transuranium el-
ement, while Meitner was becoming increasingly dis-
turbed by the unusual nuclear behavior of the two long
chains, which by 1937 she judged ‘very difficult to rec-
oncile with current concepts of the nucleus’9. Physicists
had doubts, and so the investigation continued.
With the Austrian Anschluss of March 1938, Lise Meitner
lost the thin protection of her Austrian citizenship. Fearing
that she would soon lose her position and be prevented from
leaving, she fled Germany illegally on 13 July 1938, with ten
marks in her purse and some summer clothes. Two Dutch
friends, physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, helped
her get to Holland. In August she traveled to Stockholm
for a position in Manne Siegbahn’s Nobel Institute for
Experimental Physics. His welcome was distinctly cool.
The discovery of nuclear fission
That fall Meitner corresponded constantly with Hahn. In
October 1938 he and Strassmann analyzed a strong new
activity first reported by Irène Curie and Pavel Savitch.
Hahn and Strassmann found that it followed a barium
carrier and attributed it to radium. Meitner questioned the
radium on theoretical grounds: a slow neutron could not
cause uranium to emit even one, and certainly not two
alpha particles. In November, Meitner and Hahn met at
Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen. According to Strassmann,
Endeavour Vol. 26(1) 2002 29
Figure 3 Fritz Strassmann in 1936, aged 34. Credit: Hanne
Zapp-Berghauser, courtesy Irmgard Strassmann.
she ‘urgently requested’ that they thoroughly scrutinize
the radium again. ‘Fortunately L. Meitner’s opinion and
judgement carried so much weight with us in Berlin that
we immediately undertook the necessary control experi-
ments’10. These were the experiments that led directly to
the identification of barium a few weeks later.
On 19 December 1938 Hahn informed Meitner that their
‘radium’ was indistinguishable from barium. ‘Perhaps you
could come up with some sort of fantastic explanation,’
he wrote. It was politically impossible for them to publish
together as before, so he added, ‘If there is anything you
could propose that you could publish, it would still in a
way be work by the three of us!’11
Meitner’s favorite nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch,
came to Sweden for Christmas. Together they devised the
first theoretical explanation for a uranium nucleus split-
ting in two, calculated the energy released, pointed to the
‘transuranium’ elements as fission fragments, and proposed
the term ‘nuclear fission’ which was instantly adopted12,13.
Hahn and Strassmann published in Naturwissenschaften14,
and Meitner and Frisch in Nature15 a few weeks later. The
publications divided chemistry from physics experiment
from theory, and, auspiciously, German from English, and
those Germans who had remained in Germany from those
who had become refugees. Only those who understood
the discovery and its political context realized that these
divisions were artifacts of Meitner’s forced emigration
and the political oppression of the time.
The discovery ended Meitner and Hahn’s scientific col-
laboration. Anon-Nazi, Hahn was afraid others would learn
he had collaborated with an exiled ‘non-Aryan’; it became
difficult to think of the discovery as ‘work by the three of
us’. In February 1939 he wrote to Meitner, ‘In all our work
we [Hahn and Strassmann] absolutely never touched on
physics, instead we only did chemical separations over and
over again’. Moreover, fission was ‘a gift from heaven’that
he hoped would protect him from political interference16.
It did. The German military quickly became interested in
the weapons potential of nuclear fission and supported
Hahn and the KWI throughout the war.
In 1939 Meitner and Frisch’s theoretical explanation was
considered seminal, and Bohr made it the starting point
for an extended nuclear theory. That summer Meitner
accepted an offer from Cambridge, which was rescinded
after the war began. She remained isolated and unhappy
in Siegbahn’s institute, neither invited to join his group
nor given the resources to form her own. In 1943 she
turned down an invitation to join the British scientific
delegation in Los Alamos: she refused to work on a bomb.
She anxiously waited out the war, deeply worried that
Germany might develop a nuclear weapon first.
Suppressing the past
Hahn never wavered from his claim that fission belonged
to chemistry; in time he and his followers would accuse
physics and Meitner of misleading, delaying, and even
obstructing the discovery. His version became the ac-
cepted account, reinforced by the 1944 Nobel prize in
chemistry to him alone and by his near-iconic status in
postwar Germany. Strassmann was permanently in his
shadow; Meitner almost invisible. In Germany she was
viewed as ‘Hahn’s former Mitarbeiterin’ (a subordinate
co-worker). More often she was completely absent, as in
the Deutsches Museum in Munich, which for 35 years
displayed the mostly physical fission apparatus under a
sign that read ‘Arbeitstisch von Otto Hahn’ and never
mentioned her at all17.
Hahn came to Stockholm for his prize in December
1946, intent on generating sympathy for Germany. In
dozens of interviews he almost never mentioned Meitner
or their work together. ‘He suppresses the past with all his
might,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘I am part of the suppressed
past’18. In the years that followed she made few efforts to
set the record straight19, undoubtedly believing that Hahn’s
exceptional prominence made it impossible. Through it
all Lise held on to their damaged friendship for its con-
nection to the happiest years of her life.
Meitner’s situation improved after the war. In 1946 she
spent six months in the United States, a joyous reunion
with relatives and friends. Then she left Siegbahn’s insti-
tute to work on Sweden’s first nuclear reactor, with good
colleagues and a decent salary. In 1960 she moved to
Cambridge to be near Otto Robert, a fellow at Trinity Col-
lege, and his family. She died on 27 October 1968, and was
buried in a country graveyard in Bramley, Hampshire. Otto
Robert selected the inscription on the simple headstone:
Lise Meitner, a physicist who never lost her humanity.
Final questions
Meitner’s scientific contributions are so strongly docu-
mented that it has been possible to understand her work,
including her part in the fission discovery. But her story
raises other questions that may be more difficult to
answer. Among them:
Why did she not share in the Nobel chemistry prize with
Hahn, or receive a prize in physics? Nobel records reveal
numerous nominations for Meitner, a chemistry selection
that was hasty and scientifically uninformed, a physics
committee whose evaluations of Meitner were blatantly
unfair20,21. How much of this was due to her outsider
30 Endeavour Vol. 26(1) 2002
Figure 4 Meitner’s nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch at age 29, shortly before
emigrating from Germany in 1933. Credit: Ulla Frisch.
status as a foreigner, a refugee, and a woman? And how
much was due to Siegbahn who, it appears, schemed to
block a prize for Meitner, fearing competition for funding
and prestige?22
Disturbing questions center on Otto Hahn. Meitner won-
dered about his character, intellect, and capacity for self-
deception, but she also recognized that his suppression of the
past was the norm for Germans in the postwar period. How
does one approach the history of a period of ‘forgetting’?
The issue is of great current interest23, not least because
the historical void becomes filled with misrepresentation.
Gender questions thread through a woman’s life. Would
a man of Meitner’s prominence have been so poorly
received in exile, so readily excluded from an important
discovery, so quickly rendered nearly invisible by his-
torians? Recently a Swedish historian noted that women
and gender questions have always fallen below a certain
‘historiographical threshold’; he then proceeded to entirely
omit women, including Meitner, from his own edited
volume on 20th-century Swedish physics24. Traditional
historians have disproportionately neglected women. The
story of Lise Meitner’s life and work shows that questions
of women’s history are essential to the history of science
and to history overall.
1Meitner, L. (1964) Looking Back, Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists 20:11 (November 1964), 2–7
2Sime, R.L. (1996) Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics,
University of California Press
3Otto Robert Frisch (1970) Lise Meitner 1878–1968, Biog.
Mem. Fell. Roy. Soc. Lond. 16, 405–420
4Badash, L. (1979) Radioactivity in America: Growth and
Decay of a Science, Johns Hopkins University Press
5Jensen, C. (2000) in Controversy and Consensus: Nuclear
Beta Decay 1911–1934 (Aaserud, F., Kragh, H., Rüdinger,
E., Stuewer, R.H., eds), Birkhäuser Verlag
6Roqué, X. (1997) The Manufacture of the Positron, Stud.
Hist. Phil. Mod. Phys. 28:1, 73–129
7Meitner to Gerta von Ubisch, 1 July 1947, Meitner
Collection; in Sime, R.L. (1996) Lise Meitner: A Life in
Physics, pp. 148–154, University of California Press
8Meitner to Max von Laue, 4 September 1944, Meitner
Collection, Cambridge; reprinted in Lemmerich, J. (ed.)
(1998) Lise Meitner-Max von Laue Briefwechsel
1938–1948, pp. 399–400, ERS-Verlag
9Meitner, L., Hahn, O. and Strassmann, F. (1937) Über die
Umwandlungsreihen des Urans, die durch
Neutronenbestrahlung erzeugt werden, Z. Phys. 106,
10 Strassmann, F. (1978) Kernspaltung: Berlin Dezember
1938, pp. 18, 20, Privatdruck; reprinted in Krafft, F. (1981)
Im Schatten der Sensation: Leben und Wirken von Fritz
Strassmann, p. 208, Verlag Chemie
11 Hahn to Meitner, 19 December 1938, Meitner Collection
12 Frisch, O.R. (1967) The Interest is Focussing on the Atomic
Nucleus in Niels Bohr: His Life and Work as Seen by His
Friends and Colleagues (Rozental, S., ed.), pp. 137–148,
North Holland/John Wiley
13 Frisch, O.R. (1979) What Little I Remember, pp. 114–116,
Cambridge University Press
14 Hahn, O. and Strassmann, F. (1939) Über den Nachweis und
das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels
neutronen entstehehnden Erdalkalimetalle, Naturwiss. 27,
15 Meitner, L. and Frisch, O.R. (1939) Disintegration of
Uranium by Neutrons: ANew Type of Nuclear Reaction,
Nature 143, 239–240
16 Hahn to Meitner, 7 February 1939, Meitner Collection
17 In 1991 the infamous ‘Arbeitstisch’ display was revised to
include Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann more equitably, but
more recently a banner was added with a short history that
again omits Meitner.
18 Meitner to James Franck, 16 January 1947, Meitner Collection
19 One exception is a 1963 article, which sets the fission
discovery into a physics context: Meitner, L. (1963) Wege
und Irrwege zur Kernenergie, Naturwiss. Rdsch. 16, 167–169.
Another is a 1963 interview of Meitner with Thomas Kuhn:
American Institute of Physics Oral History Project, tape 65a
20 Crawford, E., Sime, R.L. and Walker, M. (1996) ANobel
Tale of wartime injustice, Nature 382,393–395
21 Crawford, E., Sime, R.L. and Walker, M. (1997) ANobel
Tale of Postwar Injustice, Physics Today 50:9, 26–32; and
(1998) response to letter, Physics Today 51:2, 15
22 Friedman, R.M. (2001) The Politics of Excellence: Behind
the Nobel Prize in Science, pp. 232–250, Times Books
23 As shown, for example, by the success of Copenhagen
[Frayn, M. (1998) Copenhagen, Methuen Drama] and the
ongoing discussion the play has generated
24 Lindqvist, S. (ed.) (1993) Center on the Periphery:
Historical Aspects of 20th-Century Swedish Physics, p. xxix,
p. l fn. 92, Science History Publications
Endeavour Vol. 26(1) 2002 31
... Durante esse período, porém, o partido Nazista ganhou o apoio da população e assumiu o poder, o que minou a carreira em ascendência de Meitner. Em 1933 Lise teve o seu contrato com a Universidade suspenso e teve de trabalhar como pesquisadora às escondidas, até 1938, quando foi denunciada por um colega nazista e se viu obrigada a deixar a Alemanha, partindo ilegalmente e refugiando-se na Suécia, onde teve o amparo de seu sobrinho, também físico, Otto Frisch (Sime, 2002), com quem realizou parceria durante esse tempo. Durante seu refúgio, Meitner permaneceu em contato com Otto Hahn. ...
... entrevistas Hahn quase nunca mencionou seu trabalho colaborativo com Lise (Sime, 2002). Segundo Sime (2002), Meitner sempre foi uma pessoa muito reservada, nunca autorizou uma biografia, assim como nunca teve interesse em escrever sobre si. ...
... entrevistas Hahn quase nunca mencionou seu trabalho colaborativo com Lise (Sime, 2002). Segundo Sime (2002), Meitner sempre foi uma pessoa muito reservada, nunca autorizou uma biografia, assim como nunca teve interesse em escrever sobre si. Também são raros os textos de sua autoria que não versam sobre física. ...
... Hahn alone received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery, even though Meitner had long been his collaborator and her theoretical explanation considered seminal. Despite being nominated several times, she never received a Nobel (Sime 2002). ...
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Abstract Eva von Bahr (1874–1962) got her doctorate in experimental physics at the Physics Institute at Uppsala University in 1908. Subsequently she became the first woman assistant professor in physics in Sweden. In the face of many obstacles, she worked as a physicist for six years in Uppsala and Berlin. In 1914 she took a position as a school teacher. This article explores von Bahr’s trajectory through academic experimental physics. It is argued that network connections with male scientists enabled her work. Her associations were a mix between institutional relationships and informal connections, resulting in what is labeled a ‘hybrid of connections’. Furthermore it is argued that von Bahr became an ‘outsider within’ in academic experimental physics. Her connections created openings, but these coexisted with hindrances. It is argued that von Bahr oscillated between being an insider and an outsider which created a fractured identity. Her position and identity was a mix between membership and non-membership. Through examining von Bahr’s career this article aims to bring together historical research on women in science and theoretical work in science studies. Furthermore, the article argues the analytical value of feminist perspectives on scientific collaborations as a way to a deeper understanding of the network structures of science.
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In November 1945, three months after the end of World War II, a narrow majority of the members of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decided to award the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission. The award was and still remains controversial, primarily because Hahn's Berlin colleagues, the chemist Fritz Strassmann and the physicist Lise Meitner, were not included. Probably, Strassmann was ignored because he was not a senior scientist. Meitner's exclusion, however, points to other flaws in the decision process, and to four factors in particular: the difficulty of evaluating an interdisciplinary discovery, a lack of expertise in theoretical physics, Sweden's scientific and political isolation during the war, and a general failure of the evaluation committees to appreciate the extent to which German persecution of Jews skewed the published scientific record. Recently released Swedish documents reveal why Lise Meitner, codiscoverer of nuclear fission, did not receive the 1946 physics prize for her theoretical interpretation of the process.
Preface 1. Vienna 1904-1927 2. Atoms 3. Berlin 1927-1930 4. Hamburg 1930-1933 5. Nuclei 6. London 1933-1934 7. Denmark 1934-1939 8. Denmark 1934-1939 9. Energy from the nuclei 10. Birmingham 1939-1940 11. Liverpool 1940-1943 12. Los Alamos 1943-1945 13. Los Alamos 1943-1945 14. Research resumed 15. Return to England 16. Cambridge 1947- ... Further reading Acknowledgements Index.
Lise Meitner’s name has become widely known for her part in the discovery of nuclear fission, which made atomic power possible, as well as atomic weapons. But among physicists she had been known for many years as one of the early pioneers in the study of radioactivity. Einstein nicknamed her ‘the German Madame Curie’; but though most of her work was done in Berlin she came from Austria and retained her nationality through her life, even after she became a Swedish citizen about eight years before her death. She was born on 7 November 1878 in Vienna where she spent the first third of her life, a town to which she always remained very attached. Another third she worked in Germany. When Austria was occupied by the Nazis she found refuge in Sweden where she stayed for over 20 years. It was only at the age of 81 that she gave up scientific research and retired to England to live out the rest of her days in Cambridge, close to her eldest nephew (the author of this memoir). Her father was Dr Philipp Meitner, a respected lawyer and keen chess player. She was the third among eight children; thus she was used both to being ruled by her two older sisters and ruling over the younger children. Although her parents came from Jewish stock, her father was a freethinker, and the Jewish religion played no role in her education. Indeed, all the children were baptized, and Lise Meitner grew up as a protestant; in later years her views were very tolerant though she would not accept complete atheism.