Overcoming Nobel Prejudice: Story of Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission

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Nuclear fission is one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. Yet not many know that it was Lise Meitner who was behind the discovery, just after her escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1938. In 1944 Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner’s laboratory partner of thirty years, who remained in Berlin throughout the Third Reich, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The separation of the former collaborators and Meitner’s exile in Sweden led to the Nobel committee’s failure to understand her part in the work. The Nobel committee’s mistake was never acknowledged, but was partly rectified in 1966, when Hahn, Meitner, and Strassmann were awarded the United States Fermi Prize. She was also awarded numerous prizes and honorary doctorates by universities in the United States and Europe.

Who was Lise Meitner?

Lise Meitner was born in 1878 as the third of eight children of a Viennese Jewish family. She showed an early talent for mathematics and was privately tutored. Her father insisted that each of his daughters should receive the same education as his sons. Due to Austrian restrictions on female education, she entered the University of Vienna in 1901, at an age of 23. She was the first woman admitted to the university’s physics lectures and laboratories. With Ludwig Boltzmann as her teacher, she came to the conclusion that physics was her calling and earned a doctoral degree in physics in 1905. Three of her sisters also earned Ph.D. degrees later.

Meitner was invited to Berlin by Max Planck to continue with her post-doctoral studies. From 1907–1912 Meitner worked as an unpaid research scientist at the Berlin Institute for Chemistry but was not permitted access to the laboratories since women were prohibited entry to the institute. During this time she met the radio-chemist Otto Hahn, who became a thirty-year research partner in experimental work discovering new radioactive elements and unraveling their complex physical properties.

After World War I Otto Hahn was named the administrative director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, while Meitner supervised the Physics Section, which she led successfully for over twenty years until forced to flee Berlin under the Third Reich. Meitner became an official University Lecturer in 1922, but even in liberalizing Berlin the press jokingly reported the topic of her inaugural speech as “Cosmetic Physics” instead of cosmic physics. In 1926 she was given the title of Professor.

From 1924 to 1934, the Meitner-Hahn team gained international prestige and were competing with the Paris team of the Irene Joliot-Curies and Rome’s Enrico Fermi to unravel the complexities of the mysterious “transuranic” elements. They were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ten consecutive years. They were also nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics by Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Bohr and von Laue in 1936. Meitner was nominated for the Physics Prize three times by Niels Bohr after the World War II.

In 1938 when the National Socialists issued an order forbidding famous scientists to travel abroad, the international physics community under lead of Danish physicist Niels Bohr orchestrated Meitner’s escape route from Berlin. Her final destination was Stockholm, Sweden. Niels Bohr arranged work for Meitner at the new Nobel Research Institute of Physics under the leadership of Professor Manne Siegbahn, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1924 for his discoveries in the field of X-ray spectroscopy. In Stockholm, Meitner lived on a meagre research assistant’s salary. She was neither asked to join Siegbahn’s group nor given the resources to form her own, she had laboratory space but no collaborators, equipment, or technical support, not even her own set of keys to the laboratory.According to some authors Siegbahn blocked Meitner’s research career in Sweden since he distrusted female scientists and he feared that Meitner, who was a brilliant physicist would outshine him with her ground-breaking research. Some physicist also later accused Sigebahn of having hindered her from receiving the Nobel price due to his extraordinary strong position in Swedish scientific community and membership of the Nobel committee.2

Meitner continued to exchange letters almost daily with Hahn. They met in Copenhagen in 1938 and planned new experiments. She urged him and their assistant Fritz Strassman in Berlin to continue research she had instigated on uranium. On December 24, she received a letter from Hahn recounting a strange “bursting” he described as occurring to uranium, forming barium. Hahn asked his trusted colleague to interpret this process: “What would physics say about such bursting?” He had written up their findings and submitted them to Die Naturwissenschaften on December 21 without crediting her contributions, and this act would literally eclipse Lise Meitner’s contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938.

Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, while hiking in the snowy Swedish woods, realized Bohr’s “liquid-drop” model of the atomic nucleus could explain the result mathematically. They scribbled formulas on a scrap of paper in the woods: A uranium atom could elongate when bombarded by neutrons, and occasionally some of the uranium atoms could split apart into two “smaller drops.” Frisch later dubbed this process “fission”, a term used by biologists to describe the elongated splitting of a cell. In fact, the uranium atoms in Hahn’s experiments had split to form the much lighter atoms barium and krypton, and ejected neutrons and a very large amount of energy, with a loss of some mass. Meitner was the first to realize Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 was at play here, converting mass into energy. In January–March 1939, she wrote a series of articles to be published in Nature with Frisch on the nuclear fission of uranium.

In Sweden Meitner encountered concentration camp victims, which convinced her to never return to Germany, although in 1947 Hahn and Strassmann invited her to re-join them at the rebuilt Institute for Chemistry. She declined their invitation to form a new Max Planck Institute for Chemistry named after their mentor, and instead retired in Sweden on a small pension. Meitner spent most of her 70s and 80s traveling, encouraging female students to “remember that science can bring both joy and satisfaction to your life.” During her final years she lived close to her nephew Otto Frisch, in Cambridge, England, where she died on October 27, 1968.

  1. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Ruth Lewin Sime, California Studies in the History of Science (11), 1997
  2. The Key to Nuclear Restraint: The Swedish Plans to Acquire Nuclear Weapons During the Cold War, Thomas Jonter, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016

Bursting Buds

Flamenco concert. The cantaor’s deep voice filled with sorrow, the rhythm and intensity of the guitar and Cajon, the red flower in the dancers hair and the fire in her eyes reminded me of the beauty of life and evoked many feelings, sad and happy. Longings after my childhoods spring river, apple trees, the unripe walnuts that could color the hands black with their green shells, plum trees, cherries, sun-dried tomatoes, those who are gone. The birth of my children. The long pauses in the daily life. Silence. Sitting in my red armchair and listening to music so low that I can barely hear it, looking at the tree outside. The big, majestic tree with leaves that changes color from green to orange-red to yellow-brown. How she loses all the leaves and is quite unashamed naked in front of me. How she dresses in white, beautiful as a bride on her way to her winter wedding. Bursting buds. Pain. No time for tears. Life moving like a stream of water, never still, has taken me from mountains of Kurdistan to Montreal. Is this the last stop?

Common sense

Books, articles, YouTube clips and TV-shows remind us everyday how we should live our lives. Self-help books are a big industry and there seem to be a creative author around every corner of our insecurity, ready to advice us regarding which part of ourselves to enhance and which parts to suffocate. After we have remade ourselves to something we are not but in accordance with the latest trend, another book comes and totally interdicts the previous one. We have to shuffle up our sleeves and reinvent ourselves again.

We live in an exchangeable time, trends come and go and our lives spin faster and faster, for many out of control. Many of us live on autopilot, with the common sense disconnected. We need someone to tell us how many bottles of water we should drink, what to eat, how to educate our children, how to be a colleague, a team leader and so on.

Couple of days ago I stumbled on an article claiming that after years of intensive analysis, Google discovered that the key to good teamwork is being nice. Really Google? Do we need years of intensive analysis to come to the conclusion that being nice is good?

You don’t need years of intensive analysis or Paulo Coelho and his quasi-philosophical empty phrases in “The Alchemist” to tell you that everything is possible as long as you really want it or that it is what you do in the present that will redeem the past and thereby change the future. Take your time and visit your grand parents instead, have a tea or coffee with them and they will tell you the same. Disconnect your autopilot, and get in touch with your common sense, drink water when you are thirsty, eat and drink what you enjoy, be a good colleague, team member and team leader, ignore the ignorance. Don’t let any trends compromise your integrity. The rest will fall in place by itself. And don’t forget to be nice!

Books

My son reads most of the time from a computer screen. While reading he Googles everything that he doesn’t understand, and jumps from one Wikipedia page to another, forgetting about the original text he was reading.

The mom in me dislikes this behaviour, to feed the beast of curiosity with a shallow knowledge. I am afraid that the flat screen will prohibit him of developing his imagination and that he will miss out on the joy of fantasising colourful sceneries with exotic scents and tastes in which the novel characters live. To immediately satisfy the curiosity cannot be good for a child’s imagination, or am I just getting old?

A couple of weeks ago, I forbid the screen time entirely and encouraged him to read a book instead. “Why?” he asked. “I am reading. You know mom, it is not the 80s anymore, people don’t read books.” Eventually he was bored and got a taste of the 80s by reading an old fashion paper book.

Later that week I told one of the students, lets call him Mr. Curly hair that I was going to the library with my children. “Library? Do they still exist?” said Mr. Curly hair with a shrug. It made me worried that the existence of libraries seem not to matter for the young generation.

To be exposed to the smell of old library books and to stroll around the library and borrow as many adventures as small arms can carry should be a part of every childhood. Possibility to travel through time and space, follow Frodo Bagger and his inherited ring, solve mysterious with Sherlock Holms and Dr. Watson, follow The Famous Five on their adventures, hide from the Nazis with Anne Frank inside the dark and damp secret annex at 263 Prinsengracht or fantasise how the Family Moskat lived their life pre World War II in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Poland.

Mr. Curly hair ended up as a smart, hardworking and pleasant young man, despite the lack of library visits, I am confident that so will my son. However, next time we will go to the library with the children I will bring along Mr. Curley hair, it is time for him and his young friends to visit the library, so that they can fight for its existence. A society without these rich reservoirs of knowledge and fantasy would be a very poor one.

Sparkling stars

A couple of days ago I saw pictures of three little girls, younger than my daughter, that were sold as prostitutes in India. Their big, intense black eyes pierced the camera and through my computer screen burned a big hole in my heart. In their eyes I could see an unending grief, if I just could see those dark eyes, I would have thought they belonged to old women that hadn’t done anything but suffering throughout their entire life. What have those beautiful eyes gone through to become so empty? They didn’t resemble eyes, but rather giant black holes that sucked me in and emptied me on all my energy. How can the world be this cruel? How can the men and women exploiting these children call themselves humans?

I wish I could grab them and bring them to me. I wish I could erase the darkness in their eyes and replace it with sparkling stars and hope.

Everyone needs a hideaway

I grow up partly during the Iran-Iraq war. A blue cloudless sky, sunshine and stable weather were associated with fear since the risk of Saddam’s bombers turning up increased during these conditions. Schools would close under long periods and parents would send their children to safer places if they had the opportunity. My grandmother lived in a village with the mountains as protection for the bombers. When I was in primary school, my brother and I were sent to her during school holidays, or any time school would close due to the risk of air attacks.

My grandmother had a big dark storage/pantry room on the first floor with a dip blue wooden door. When the longing for my parents became too strong and I needed somewhere to hide and cry so that my brother would not see me, I used to sneak into the storage room. Amongst the crock jars filled with home made tomato paste, baskets of fruits from my grandmothers fruit orchards, bags of rice, lentils, walnuts, dried basil and grapes hanging from wooden beams in the ceiling to dry out to raisins, there were boxes of the magazine “Danestaniha” that my uncles left behind. Danestaniha, which means knowledge in Persian, was a science magazine in Iran, written for layman with articles about science, technology, culture and nature.

I used to open the boxes and take a magazine, seat on a bag of beans or a barrel of pickles and read while I was crying. After a short time I would be totally absorbed by the articles and forget all about my parents and the world outside. I couldn’t understand everything I read, but it was fascinating. I could travel to the cities in ancient times long gone, the laboratory of foreign scientists, jungles of amazon, glossy images of writers in black turtlenecks and get a glimpse of the wild life of the animals. Sometimes I could just browse through one number after the other and look at the pictures. My grandmother used to once in a while stick her head in and ask me not to shuffle around my uncle’s boxes too much, but I could hear in her voice that it was ok, so I continued.

The magazines and this dark room, with scents from Ceylon tea, saffron and fresh fruits were my hideaways to cope with a world not entirely shaped for an eight years old big sister who loved her younger brother more than anything.

Google or mom, whom to trust?

My children are bilingual (French and Swedish), my maternal language is Kurdish and I speak Kurdish with them, they understand but answer me back in Swedish. They do speak English as well. My son, who is the older one, has started to swear in English and in the middle of his French or Swedish sentences a “damn” or two can sneak out. He would never swear in the languages that he masters, since he can put the words in a context and understands that it doesn’t sound good.

A couple of days ago we had a discussion regarding this and he ensured me that I was exaggerating, after all he had googled if “damn” was a bad curse and according to google it wasn’t, so I didn’t have to worry at all. Well then, I will just go back to my grant writing and let google raise my children.

Patient preferences and treatment choices for localized prostate cancer

After receiving cancer diagnosis, follows a chaotic time full of anxiety, fear and endless grief for the patients. Prostate cancer is the most common cancer amongst men in Canada and in the most cases it is diagnosed when it is still curable, nevertheless these men are faced with a long journey with many decision points along the road where they must manage their personal fear of a cancer death with the overwhelming thought of leaving their loved ones behind. In this state of mind, it is expected of the patients to get involved in the decision making process regarding their treatment.

Treatment options for localized prostate cancer are many, vary widely, and there is no consensus regarding the optimal treatment strategy. Ongoing research in the area of patients decision making and post intervention regret, reveals some insight in the patient’s choice of treatment option. Surgery is often preferred by patients seeking a cure, while brachytherapy is more often chosen by patients professing a desire for “the least invasive” treatment. Although patients stated that side effects are important, few patients report that side effect factors ultimately influence their treatment choice. However, there are several studies pointing out that men with prostate cancer often base treatment decisions on scientific misconceptions and anecdotal experiences of friends or family. Race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status plays a role as well.

Some studies show that the actual treatment choices bear little relation to the patient preferences, and instead show a strong association with clinician specialty. Physician’s advice depends heavily on the their specialty (radiation oncology vs. urology), as well as geographic region. In a recent study published in nature , researchers investigated the importance of physician’s attitudes about different treatments and the quality of life in prostate cancer, by performing a survey of specialists to assess treatment recommendations and perceptions of treatment related survival and quality of life. The conclusions from the study were that the radiation oncologists and urologists both prefer the treatment modalities they offer, perceive them to be more effective and to lead to a better quality of life. Patients receive biased information, and a truly informed consent process with shared decision making may be possible only if they are evaluated by both specialties before deciding upon a treatment course. In the absence of relevant randomized trials no decision regarding the superiority of any of the treatment modality can be made and the potential impacts of treatment side effects on quality of life for patients and their partners have to be considered in the informed decision making process.

Moments

My father was diagnosed with cancer and passed away very quickly last year leaving me in a spiritual void wondering about the meaning of life. Finley, I came to the conclusion that for me, the meaning of life is hidden in small moments in my everyday life. It is hidden in the laugher of a child, memories from past that leaves me with a warm feeling, small arms around my neck and a snotty kiss on my cheek without asking for it, morning coffee spiced with love, messages from people I care about, smile of a stranger in the subway or a cheerful good morning from the students. I need to stop once in a while during my day and acknowledge these moments before they are gone.

Frustration leads to innovation

According to a report from Canadian parliamentary budget office 40% of young Canadian graduates are overqualified for the work they do. There is obviously a mismatch for graduates between their skills and opportunities that leave them with high debt and low incomes. The keys to reverse the trend are industry-university partnerships, jobs-oriented training and greater counselling and guidance to prospective university students in choosing their field of study. However, the Internet is full of innovations born from frustration. I hope that the disappointment and frustration of being overqualified will not just result in despair, but in a new wave of innovative entrepreneurs.