So I Heard You Liked Sexism

So, while reading The Double Helix, the pervasive sexism James Watson displayed just irritated me to no end. I suppose the epilogue makes it a little better, but by the time you get there, Watson has already proved himself unreliable enough to make me really believe him. His sudden reversal of opinion on Franklin and her work didn’t really ring true for me, I guess. Anyway, Watson’s attitude towards women in general, but especially Rosalind Franklin, really made me mad. As a self-professed geek and science major, I try to keep track of the ‘women-in-the-sciences’ issue. Though Watson and Crick published their paper more than 50 years ago, their condescending attitude towards women and women scientists still causes problems today, though nowadays I would say that the problems with getting girls into science are more subtle, and often based more in gender expectations than outright sexism of the type Watson exhibits.

Anyway, I didn’t want to write this post to complain about women in science, I wanted to tell you all about one who was awesome and who you’ve probably never heard of, but should have. Her name is Lise Meitner.

Born in Austria, Lise studied physics at the University of Vienna, graduating in 1905. She was the second woman ever to receive a doctorate in physics from UV (can I call it that?), since women at the time normally weren’t allowed in! She studied under Boltzmann, attended lectures given by Planck (who normally didn’t even let women sit in and listen to him talk) and became his assistant; eventually she ended up working with Otto Hahn. Hahn was a German chemist, and while working together she presented papers on beta radiation, discovered new isotopes, and figured out the cause of the Auger effect. In 1926 she became the first female professor of physics at the University of Berlin.

Sadly, the rise of Nazi Germany forced Meitner, who was part Jewish, to flee the country for the Netherlands in 1938; but that still didn’t stop her from advancing science. When Hahn, who had remained in Germany, was successful in his attempts at nuclear fission, it was Meitner and her nephew, Otto Frisch, who explained his results. Here’s where I get really mad. After the war, in 1945, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission; Meitner, despite her 30 years of collaboration with Hahn and her years of pioneering work in physics, not to mention the fact that she was the one who explained what his experimental results actually meant, was overlooked.

Eventually, people realized just how awesome she was, and now we have an element named after her–number 109, Meitnerium. And now, you know too. I’ll leave you with this, to show you that she wasn’t just a physicist. This is an excerpt from a letter she wrote to Otto Hahn:

You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered …

Her grave reads, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”



~ by liadangreylady on March 18, 2012.

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