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Unrecognized: The story of Lise Meitner and nuclear fission

In today’s blog we talk to Dr. Ruth Lewin Sime, PhD in chemistry from Harvard University, and Professor Emeritus at Sacramento City College, on her journey to bring truth to Lise Meitner and nuclear fission.

David: You published Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics in 1996. How did your interest come about?

Ruth: Early in the 1970s I was teaching chemistry at Sacramento City College and also teaching a graduate level course in my research specialty, crystallography, at CSU Sacramento, where some marvelous women professors (there weren’t very many at the time) and students were getting a Women’s Studies program underway. One of them called to ask me to teach a Women in Science course. I distinctly remember the phone call because at that moment I couldn’t think of any women scientists except for Marie Curie (of course!) and the physicist Lise Meitner.

I taught the class several times and, together with my students, I learned a lot. I learned that women have always done science and mathematics, in every era since ancient times, and that some women were extraordinary and recognized as such by their male colleagues. But historians systematically neglected them, rendered them invisible, with the result that each new generation knew nothing of the women who came before and women scientists were never seen as normal, always as exceptions. When I taught that course, I could see that Lise Meitner, despite having been very prominent during her lifetime (she died in 1968), was in the process of fading from view. So I began trying to find out more about her.

David: How quickly after the war did it become clear that Meitner’s contribution to nuclear fission was fundamental?

Ruth: At the time the fission discovery was published in early 1939, leading physicists recognized the fundamental importance of Meitner’s role in the discovery and its theoretical interpretation, as is evident from the contemporary documentary record, as well as the three dozen Nobel nominations she received. But when Meitner’s colleague, the chemist Otto Hahn, was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry alone for work they had done together, it greatly diminished recognition for the role of Meitner and physics in the fission discovery. Hahn himself perpetuated the under-recognition of Meitner by insisting for the rest of his life (he too died in 1968) that the discovery belonged to chemistry alone and physics played no role in it. He was believed: after all, he was a Nobel laureate and a very famous man.


It was not until the 1980s that historians first had access to the archival material, including Meitner’s correspondence with Hahn, that made it possible to critically examine the scientific and extra-scientific circumstances of the discovery. But it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to correct a well-established, widely popularized narrative, however historically flawed it may be, particularly if that narrative has the imprimatur of a Nobel prize. So we now have competing narratives. The Hahn-chemistry narrative is simpler and more concise. The narrative that includes Meitner and physics is more complicated scientifically and requires, in addition, an historical awareness of the injustice and displacement of that time.

Nuclear fission was a highly interdisciplinary discovery, in which nuclear physics, chemistry, and radiochemistry were all essential. The discovery was the result of a four-year-long collaboration by the Berlin team of Meitner, Hahn, and the chemist Fritz Strassmann, who were investigating the products resulting from the neutron bombardment of uranium. They thought they had transuranic elements, but in December 1938 they identified barium as one of the products, the first indication that the uranium nucleus had split. Meitner, who was of Jewish origin, had fled Nazi Germany in July 1938 and had taken a position in Stockholm, from where she continued her collaboration with the Berlin chemists through her correspondence with Hahn and a meeting with him in November. The correspondence shows, and Strassmann always recalled, that she remained the intellectual leader and an essential member of their Berlin team until the barium was identified and beyond. Nevertheless, when Hahn and Strassmann published the barium finding in early January 1939, they did not include Meitner as a coauthor, it being politically impossible for them to include a Jew in exile. Instead, Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, also a physicist and a refugee, devised the first theoretical interpretation of the fission process, calculated the energy released, and realized that the supposed transuranic elements were fission products. The separate publications created an artificial divide between chemistry and physics, and experiment and theory, that did not reflect how the discovery actually took place. To those who did not fully understand the science and did not realize that the norms of scientific attribution had been corrupted by racial persecution and forced emigration, it appeared that the chemists had discovered fission and the physicists had merely interpreted it. Among those who lacked understanding were members of the Nobel establishment. But that is another story.

David: As late as 2013 and as part of a STEM initiative to bring science to freshmen at Columbia University, the origin of fission was being molded into the curriculum and, across the board, faculty were still very much under the impression that fission was a chemistry discovery. I had a similar experience but elsewhere as recently as 2015. Why is it so hard to correct the historical record?

Ruth: I suspect that correcting an accepted historical narrative is never easy, but the received Hahn-chemistry narrative of the fission discovery is, I believe, an especially tough and stubborn case. Among the reasons: the interdisciplinary nature of the discovery, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry awarded to Hahn alone, and the effect of persecution and forced emigration on scientific attribution at the time of the discovery in Nazi Germany. In addition, there is the sensational nature of fission itself – it was a sensational surprise when it was first discovered, and far more sensational after the atomic bombs that ended the war in August 1945. When Hahn’s Nobel was announced in November 1945 – such timing! – it made him an international scientific celebrity. For the next 15 years Hahn used his celebrity status for rebuilding and rehabilitating the war-torn German scientific community. He was exactly the right person for the job: the kindly, decent man who was never a Nazi, the Nobel laureate whose discovery (he always emphasized) was purely scientific and would (he hoped) be used only for peaceful purposes in the future. He projected his image onto all of German science and scientists, insisting that science and scientists had been untouched by Nazism and the war (which he knew to be untrue). He never corrected the record with respect to Lise Meitner, his closest colleague and friend; we can only speculate about the motives for such betrayal.

It is impossible to overstate Hahn’s iconic status in postwar Germany, where he was admired, I would even say loved, as a great man who represented the continued excellence of German science and, by extension, of Germany itself. His narrative of the fission discovery was endlessly propagated, in newspapers, magazines, radio, film, museum displays, textbooks, and more. His legend extended well beyond Germany and has lasted long after his death. In its wake, Strassmann was increasingly sidelined (his biography is titled “In the Shadow of the Sensation”) and Meitner was described as Hahn’s assistant (completely untrue) or not mentioned at all. Without question, Meitner’s marginalization was made possible by prevailing gendered notions of a woman in science as a helper, or nonexistent, or wrong. For all these reasons, Hahn’s version of the fission discovery was and still is hard to displace, as you, David, have recently experienced.

David: Is it fair to say that discrimination against women in STEM was more in your face when you entered academia? How has it evolved over the last half century and do you have personal anecdotes?

Ruth: When I entered grad school in chemistry in 1960 (yes, I am that old), discrimination against women was not only in our collective faces, it was so completely normal we didn’t even know enough to call it “discrimination.” Recently I saw that when Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law about 5 years earlier, only 2% of the law students were women. When I graduated college, 5% of medical students were women and I think the numbers were probably about the same for grad schools in science. When I finished my doctorate in 1964, I got a great job at one California State University, where I was completely welcomed and accepted, and then another job where I was told to my face that they never wanted to hire a woman, but they needed someone and they knew I wouldn’t last long since I was young and would soon have babies and leave. I have more anecdotes of this sort, but it would take me a while to resurrect them. Thanks to legislation and the efforts of many women and men, things have gotten much better for women at all levels of education and in many scientific fields. The exceptions, it seems, are physics and engineering, where the numbers remain pretty dismal for reasons that are not clear. Do you have a sense for why that is?

David: My feeling is that the men of science that represent the peak of the bell curve are the poster children of a recruitment process designed to bring socially and sexually insecure people into a club of kindred spirits, to shield them from the outside world and help bolster an illusion. And women, among others, get in the way of that project. But, thank you professor!

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