SPECIAL FEATURE - WOMEN IN SCIENCE BY GORDON WEIR

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 and educated at The University of Vienna - which had only began admitting full-time women students in 1897. Preferring a career in academia and research she eventually made her way to The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin where she would become the first women physics professor in Germany. Her early successes included being partly responsible for the discovery of the radioactive element protactinium in 1919. Later, whilst working alongside Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, it was discovered that when the metallic element thorium was bombarded by neutrons, various isotopes were produced (different numbers of neutrons in the atomic nucleus from normal thorium). Meitner continued this work with her nephew Otto Frisch and, in late 1938, formulated the defining theory behind how the splitting of an atom was achieved. This is the process that we know today as atomic fission; and was the process that made the atomic bomb a reality. Meitner was overlooked for the Nobel Prize for the discovery of atomic fission, instead Hahn alone was awarded the prize in 1944. Meitner would eventually be nominated for the Nobel prize, in either chemistry or physics, a total of 48 times – never with any success.

 
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By the end of 1938, Meitner, who was Jewish, had moved to Sweden where she continued her work at The Stockholm Institute for Physics and in 1946, she made her way to America to visit Albert Einstein at Princeton; Meitner was well known by all of the notable names from this time, including Schrodinger, Planck, Pauli and Heisenberg (all Nobel Laureates). Meitner retired from the institute in Stockholm in 1960 and moved to Cambridge. Still giving lectures, she continued to be an active part of the scientific community until her death in 1968 at the age of 89. Although never a Nobel Prize winner, in 1997, element 109, Meitnerium, was named in her honour.

 
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EMILE DU CHATELET

Emile du Chatelet was born in Paris in 1706 into a wealthy French aristocratic family. Because of her background, she was able to receive an excellent education and, from an early age, showed an extraordinary talent for languages, mathematics and physics. Her defining work was the translation, into French, of Newton’s Principia Mathematica (published in 1687 on the philosophy of Newtonian Physics and Leibnizian Metaphysics) and the addition of a postulate concerning the conservation of total energy - the postulate concerning kinetic energy and its relationship to mass and velocity. Newton had believed that energy was proportional to mass times velocity (momentum) whereas Chatelet was able to show that energy was actually proportional to mass times velocity squared.  The translation is still in use to this day.

Chatelet’s adult life was dominated by her work in physics, philosophy and mathematics, resulting in the publication of many papers and essays on the subjects, including her philosophical magnum opus (considered to be her best work), Institutions de Physique (1740) which was republished and translated into several languages.  Chatelet understood the nature of discovery and advancement, stating that, “Hypothesis are useful because they help us to discover new truths.” Although she took part in mathematics discussions at the Café Gradot in Paris, in order to gain entry, she had to dress as a man. This treatment, however, did little to put her off and, determined to be an active part of the scientific community, she had frequent contact with some of the best known scientists of the day including Leonhard Euler and Johann Bernoulli. She also had had a long affair with the writer Voltaire.

When Chatelet became pregnant again at the age of 42, she knew that there was a chance that she would not survive – women over 40, even aristocratic women, often died during childbirth at this time. And so it was, that on the 10th of September 1749, Emile du Chatelet died, just hours after giving birth to a daughter. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica was published posthumously in 1757.

 

JOCELYN BELL BURNELL

Jocelyn Bell Burnell was born in Lurgan, Northern Ireland in 1943. Her father, an architect, had helped design the Armagh Planetarium and so, with visits to the planetarium, combined with her father’s collection of books on cosmology, Jocelyn’s path ahead was clear. Despite this, Jocelyn’s school remained very traditional; technology was for boys and not girls. This eventually led to Jocelyn attending school in York where attitudes to girls in science were far better. From there, Jocelyn went onto Glasgow University where she obtained her honours degree in physics in 1965 before, four years later, completing her doctorate degree at Cambridge. It was during her time in Cambridge as a postgraduate research student that Jocelyn made her discovery. It was in November 1967 that Jocelyn noticed something out of the ordinary. In 1967, this meant months of checking previously collected data by hand. Eventually, months of hard work revealed a signal from space which seemed to pulsate at regular intervals. For a short time, it was thought that the signal could be coming from another intelligent species trying to make contact. After several further years of observations, the eventual conclusion reached was that it was a rotating neutron star (small but very dense remnant of a super-massive star after its gravitational collapse, composed mainly of tightly packed neutrons) or pulsar. Jocelyn enjoyed a brief period in the limelight, however, she found many of the questions from reporters condescending, sexist and downright insulting; she was after all a highly accomplished physicist and cosmologist.

 
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It was, however, the next chapter of the story that turned out to be the most controversial. Everyone agreed that it was indeed a great discovery and deserving of the highest recognition and in 1974 the Nobel Prize Committee agreed, awarding the prize for the discovery of  pulsars to Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle. The problem, according to many, and even Jocelyn herself, was that Nobel Prizes had never before been awarded to a student. Instead her supervisor, Hewish, and Ryle, another member of the Cambridge Observatory Team, were given the honour in what many believed was a mixture of sexism and academic snobbery – I agree! Even, the most renowned British astronomer of the day, Sir Fred Hoyle, said her omission from the prize was unfair.
The story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, did not end there as she went on to have an immensely successful career. President of The Royal Astronomical Society from 2002 to 2004, followed by the presidency of The Institute of Physics from 2008 to 2010 and in 2018 she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, using the £2.3 million prize money to set up The Bell Burnell Graduate Scholarship Fund to support female, refugee and minority groups become physics researchers. And, in recognition of her contribution to science, her picture can now be seen on Ulster Bank £50 notes.

 

MARIE CURIE

The next women is perhaps the best known of all women in science – Marie Curie. Polish born and French educated, Curie was both a brilliant physicist and chemist and it was for her work in radioactivity that she is best known. Marie Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, then part of The Russian Empire, and gained the first part of her scientific education there, at The Warsaw Flying University. In 1891, she moved to Paris to be with her older sister Bronislawa and it was in Paris  where she earned her advanced degrees and would carry out her subsequent work. In 1895 she married French physicist Pierre Curie, sharing with him and Henri Becquerel the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics for their work on radioactivity -  luckily, for Marie, she had only completed her doctorate six months before the Nobel award in December 1903 - and in 1911 Marie won the Nobel Chemistry Prize for her discovery and isolation of the elements (named by her) radium and polonium.

 
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Radium came to be used in many different applications, however, as a result of never registering the name and the techniques used for its isolation she made no financial gains for her (and Pierre’s) work. Tragically Pierre died as the result of a road traffic accident in Paris in 1906, falling under the wheels of a horse drawn carriage; killing him instantly. Marie was left alone with their two young daughters and it was only because of the decision by the University of Paris, that decided to offer Marie Pierre’s position at the university, that Marie was able to continue her work and provide for her family. Marie had become the university’s first women physics professor.

Some believe that Curie did not receive the recognition she deserved in France. This time the reason was not her sex but her religion; Marie Curie was Jewish and much of French society at the time was still divided as a result of the Dreyfuss affair. By 1910, Marie had already started an affair with Paul Langevin. A married man, and himself a renowned physicist, Marie faced angry criticism, and even threats of violence, as she was portrayed as an atheist, foreigner and home-wrecker.

 
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The Great War put a stop to most of Marie’s research, however, keen to help her adopted country, and with little thanks for her efforts, she was to play a significant role in using radon for the sterilisation of wounds as well as the use of the recently discovered x-rays for detecting broken bones and internal wounds. The French Government, possibly embarrassed by awards and recognition of her achievements by other countries, most notably America, eventually, in 1921, offered her The Legion of Honour. Marie refused the award but did accept an invitation to become a member of the newly established League of Nations alongside Albert Einstein.

Marie paid a final visit to her native Poland in 1934, dying just a few months later from aplastic anaemia, contracted due to years of exposure to radium. She was buried alongside Pierre in Paris and, sixty-one years later, both were re-interned in the Paris Pantheon; both bodies contained in lead lined coffins due to high levels of radiation.

 
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