The Nuclear Truth About Women in Science

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History shows women have always been subordinate to men in business, politics, and most importantly science. Sexual discrimination has forced female scientists to work twice as hard and half as publicly. Two women who fell victims to discrimination were Lise Meitner and Marie Curie, whose intelligence allowed them to rise to fame at one point or another. Between the late 1850s and early 1950s, Meitner and Curie faced different forms of discrimination, from religious backlash to denied entry into scientific institutes. Discrimination presented itself in various ways and ultimately, they were undermined as women in what was considered a man’s field—physics. Despite their hardships, Meitner and Curie were still recognized as successful scientists, demonstrating that discrimination was merely a deterrent. Due to their hard work and determination, they are two of the most important women in science today.

Lise Meitner: The Mother of Nuclear Power

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria in 1878 into a Jewish community. As tensions in Germany grew, she began to notice the discrimination towards “Jewish blood” by Germans and converted to Protestant (AIP, 2016). Meitner began to demonstrate as a little girl that she was above average in intelligence, and as a result, attended the University of Vienna. Her first semester was far from a typical first-year, juggling 25 hours of laboratory and lectures in physics, calculus, and chemistry. Having uncovered her lose for physics, she continued to study and became the second woman to earn a doctorate in physics (Sime, 18).

In science, women were either a rarity or unwanted. Normally it was the latter, but Meitner had made friends with Max Planck and continued her research, giving her an advantage in being admitted into the University of Berlin. The best professors were reserved for men, and the University had no shame in stripping women of benefits they had to offer; however, her relationship with Planck allowed her to receive lectures from him. From the University she moved towards the Chemistry Institute, where she met Otto Hahn, a chemist. The Institute also lacked support for women, and as a result, she received very little resources and help. In an effort to accumulate money for a better lab, she became Max Planck’s assistant and became the first woman to grade papers. The money she acquired allowed her to establish the Hahn-Meitner lab with Hahn, a major start in interdisciplinary research in radioactivity (Nanal, 2017).

Not only did Meitner have educational success, but she made great discoveries in her labs. Having acquired an interest in rays after working as an x-ray technician nurse in a Military hospital, she took her interest to her lab where she built a beta-ray spectrometer and a cloud chamber. The beta-ray spectrometer helps determine the energies and intensities of beta rays. Beta-rays can now be used to treat various medical conditions. On the other hand, a cloud chamber detects charged particles, x-rays, and gamma rays by analyzing the condensation trails they produce. This provides accurate information of their momentum and energy (Nanal, 2017).

To continue, her research did not end there. Her title of “mother of nuclear power” began originating when she introduced the radioactive recoil method for the physical separation of elements. She is most known for her experiment with Hahn in determining nuclear fission. In 1934 they irradiated Uranium (Z=92) with thermal neutrons and they ended with Barium (Z=56). They had discovered that they could create a nucleus with half the mass of the original element through fission. These discoveries changed chemistry and physics for years to come, but recognition was far from accredited (Nanal, 2017).

Discrimination Against Meitner and Her Work

To begin, Meitner made great discoveries and introduced great pieces of work, but they were all questioned and ignored due to her being a woman. The attacks on her self-esteem began with the national bias towards the Jewish community. This forced Meitner to convert to Protestant and leave her community behind. Meitner earned her doctorate in Physics in hopes of continuing her scientific work professionally right away, but there were little to no job opportunities for women in science. She became a teacher, but with science as her passion, she conducted research at night, a decision that allowed her to enter the University of Berlin. If it were not for her relationships with fellow scientists, she would have not received the education she did nor the recommendations (Sime, 9).

In addition, the Chemistry Institute prevented Meitner from having many resources or any recognition from within the institute. She was given a small room in the basement to create her laboratory, limiting her from resources and exposure. Since it was off-limits for women to work in the institute, she had to take an alternate path to her laboratory to avoid walking through the institute and being seen. When she finally established her own laboratory with Hahn, Hahn and Strassman published an article on nuclear fission, purposely omitting Meitner’s name from the author list (Nanal, 2017). It was said that Hahn did this to protect himself and his workplace (AIP, 2016). Despite Meitner having conducted the majority of the experiment, she was unaccredited for and her effort neglected.

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To continue, given that her name was omitted from the author list, Meitner was stripped of a Nobel Prize and her contribution to nuclear fission was ignored (Nanal, 2017). She was considered subordinate to her collaborators and merely a helping hand, causing Meitner’s work to go undervalued. The lack of recognition prevented Meitner from being included in scientific discussions. This is highly due to the fact that universities and institutes already did not favor women, and she did not have enough, according to men, to make her work credible and efficient.

Although Meitner was not recognized by the Nobel board, she was given the Fermi Prize in 1966, which recognized the discovery of fission as a group effort in which she collaborated. In addition, the US National Press Club named her Woman of the Year in 1946, and the element Meitnerium was named after her (Nanal, 2017). After some time, Meitner began to receive recognition for her hard work and contribution to science. While Meitner experienced discrimination throughout her career, she was eventually established as a major scientist that discovered nuclear fission. Discrimination encouraged Meitner to work harder and smarter, but it did not prevent her from being one of the greatest scientists of all time.

Marie Curie: First Female with a Doctorate in Physics

Maria Sklodowska, or better known today as Marie Curie, was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1867. Growing up she was very bright, but women were not allowed to go to the university. She began working as a governess to support her sister’s education until 1891 when her sister started supporting her so she could study at Sorbonne University in Paris. It was at this point when Maria changed her name to Marie, the French translation of her name. In 1893 she earned a degree in Physics, a year later a degree in Math, and many more years after, in 1903, she became the first woman to get a doctorate in Physics (Lambert, 2017).

Not long after finishing her bachelor studies, Curie met Pierre Curie and married him. They both began to work together when Marie discovered from another scientist, Antoine Henri Becquerel, that uranium gave off invisible rays, and she became invested in investigating uranium. She determined that uranium was not the only substance to give off mysterious ways, and therefore coined the term radioactive to describe “any substance that gives off mysterious rays” (Lambert, 2017). Curie discovered that uranium did not have the highest content of uranium and began examining pitchblende, a substance that contained various elements. Marie and Pierre were able to isolate polonium in 1989 and eventually radium, four years later. Their work in discovering radioactive elements won them the Noble prize for Physics, and Marie Curie, eight years later, won the Nobel prize for Chemistry (Lambert, 2017).

Success Amongst Discrimination

It is well known that Marie Curie received many prizes and recognition for her work, but she still faced discrimination from the public, making it that much harder to establish herself as a scientist. Letters between Marie Curie and Paul Langevin were released, a man she was having an affair with. In this time, it was common for men to have affairs, but the women were usually kept hidden. Given the publicity her affair received, men started to preach the immorality of women having careers. She was seen as a home-wrecker and as a woman that could not be trusted. The validity of her work was questioned, and people were unsure if to continue following her work (Graham, 2009).

Furthermore, Curie experienced sexual discrimination on a major level when she was not allowed on stage when Nobel prize recipients were to give lectures in Sweden. Pierre Curie presented the lecture without her, but he made sure to mention her name and contribution to their science. Since she was not allowed to be a part of the lecture, people believed she was more of an assistant, undermining her skills as a scientist. The response of the public exhausted Curie, she was tired of fighting against the public who made her seem only as a woman and not as a scientist (Atkins, 2016).

To continue, she was denied acceptance into the Académie des Sciences in Paris. Since she was denied, it made her seem less capable of researching physics. A spokesman said it would be wise to respect the “immutable tradition” against the election of women to keep themselves safe from the possibility of a woman entangling herself in their experiments (Schiebinger, 1994). Although Curie struggled with finding a university, finding acceptance from the public, and was denied admittance into an academy, she was still rewarded for her experiments and acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee. Once again, her hardships made her work even harder in order to make a name for herself and to leave a legacy.

Meitner and Curie Amongst Other Women in Science

There is no confusion as to why women struggled to make a name for themselves more than men – they were simply subordinate. This belief, however, proved to be outdated and blatantly sexist as women were working in the same fields as men and making crucial discoveries. Women were repressed in science not only due to social reasons but political issues as well. For centuries, women were considered disruptive of serious “intellectual endeavor” and seen as a distraction or an assistant. Men did not want women to learn, especially not to surpass the work they were capable of. Not only that, but political issues such as the rise of fascism and conservatism limited the number of job opportunities for women in the sciences. Women were acquiring their Ph.Ds. across various fields in science, but not landing a job. It was common for women to burn themselves out, as they had to work harder to prove their worth and their work (Schiebinger, 1994).

For reference, Lise Meitner and Marie Curie are now well-known scientists, but their path was not laid out easily for them. Meitner began to experience political oppression as a member of a Jewish community and a woman. While she was able to attend school, she would have not received as great of an education if it were not for her peers. Meitner worked diligently enough to prove she deserved to be in the Chemistry Institute, but it was as if she was a secret hidden in the basement. Despite her hard work, she was stripped of her Nobel prize by her male colleagues. Similarly, Curie experienced discrimination throughout her career. In her case, it was harder for her to attend school where she grew up, and she experienced more criticism than a man would for partaking in an affair. While she was fortunately awarded the Nobel prize, she was prevented from giving a lecture with her husband, who made it clear the work was proportionately collaborative. Their time and age did not do reward them the justice they deserved for their scientific work, but they were deservingly recognized as time went on and societal attitudes changed.

Conclusion

In summary, women in science have worked twice as hard for half the recognition. This is especially the case for Lise Meitner and Marie Curie. Both of these women experienced sexual discrimination, from the education they were allowed to receive to the awards they were recognized for. They were either not allowed into school or were stripped of their awards. While men disregarded the women themselves, their work would stand and receive support from the public due to their male colleagues. The lack of recognition led the public to believe they were assistants and not a major aide in the discoveries. Regardless, Meitner and Curie were able to work on their experiments, in one way or another, which allowed them to explore their interests. While discrimination forced them to work around loopholes or find alternatives to carrying out their work, they were not prohibited from actively conducting their experiments. In a sense, there was an underlying importance for these women, as men would use their work, whether they were accredited or not. Their intelligence and dedication were taken advantage of, but the truth for each woman would eventually come to light, presenting them as noble scientists.

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