Saturday 18 April 2015
Features / Women make mark in an unfair world

Does the name Lise Meitner mean anything to you? Probably not. And that just goes to show how unfair this world can be.

Lise Meitner made one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time and had to watch powerlessly while the credit was stolen and she was cheated out of the Nobel Prize she deserved.

She was a physicist who rubbed shoulders with Einstein and the greats of her time. For 30 years she worked with the German chemist, Otto Hahn. It was an outstanding collaboration and she made sure that she and Hahn shared the credit for all their work.

But that came to an end in 1938 when she was forced to flee Germany because of her Jewish ancestry.

She met Hahn secretly in Denmark and asked him to do some further tests on the Uranium atom. Hahn performed the experiment and was completely baffled by the unexpected results.

Meitner, now exiled in Sweden, studied the results and realised they had split the atom. She was able to explain exactly what had happened and do the maths to prove it.

Hahn published the paper but gave her no credit, despite the fact that she had designed the experiment and interpreted the result. She reasoned that Hahn was working in Germany and the Jewish contribution would not sit well with the Nazi authorities. She thought he would do the correction later, when things were different.

Hahn never did, and in subsequent years he played down her role, calling her an assistant. In fact, Meitner was the leader and Hahn followed her suggestions. But he got the Nobel Prize after the war and she was left out in the cold.

Her colleagues and supporters had been scattered by the hostilities and, as a Jew who had become a Protestant, she was in a sort of “no man’s land”. No one spoke up for her.

The mistake was never admitted, but in 1966 the woman who had split the atom and ushered in the nuclear age was awarded the US Fermi Prize.

We all know of Marie Curie, who earned two Nobel Prizes, but there are a number of other women who have made huge contributions to science, and it is worth remembering them this Women’s Month.

One of them was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron. Ada, Countess of Lovelace, was a brilliant mathematician and created the first “computer programme” for Charles Babbage’s wooden analytical engine. The machine was built 150 years later, and it worked! She also recognised the ability of computers to go way beyond mere calculations.

Another woman, “Amazing” Grace Hopper, was a giant in the field and was responsible for the first computer languages.

But it is in astronomy that women have excelled, and today, for reasons that are not clear, 40 percent of astronomers are women.

The first of the greats was Annie Jump Cannon who, in the age before computers, described and catalogued 350000 stars. She was the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and, just before she retired, Harvard finally made her a professor. Her star catalogues are still standard works in astronomy.

Cannon’s work was done in a field neglected by men, probably because it required a huge amount of plain drudgery.

The modern giant, Vera Rubin, also selected a field where she was unlikely to be elbowed out of the way by men with big research grants distant galaxies. In the process she proved the existence of dark matter, the unseen mass that makes up 90 percent of our own Milky Way and other galaxies.

The nature of dark matter is still one of the great mysteries of our universe.

Perhaps it will take another woman to explain it.