Lise Meitner – the forgotten woman of nuclear physics who deserved a Nobel PrizeTimothy J. Jorgensen, Georgetown University
Nuclear fission – the physical process by which very large atoms like uranium split into pairs of smaller atoms – is what makes nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants possible. But for many years, physicists believed it energetically impossible for atoms as large as uranium (atomic mass = 235 or 238) to be split into two.
That all changed on Feb. 11, 1939, with a letter to the editor of Nature – a premier international scientific journal – that described exactly how such a thing could occur and even named it fission. In that letter, physicist Lise Meitner, with the assistance of her young nephew Otto Frisch, provided a physical explanation of how nuclear fission could happen.
It was a massive leap forward in nuclear physics, but today Lise Meitner remains obscure and largely forgotten. She was excluded from the victory celebration because she was a Jewish woman. Her story is a sad one.
What happens when you split an atom
Meitner based her fission argument on the “liquid droplet model” of nuclear structure – a model that likened the forces that hold the atomic nucleus together to the surface tension that gives a water droplet its structure.
She noted that the surface tension of an atomic nucleus weakens as the charge of the nucleus increases, and could even approach zero tension if the nuclear charge was very high, as is the case for uranium (charge = 92+). The lack of sufficient nuclear surface tension would then allow the nucleus to split into two fragments when struck by a neutron – a chargeless subatomic particle – with each fragment carrying away very high levels of kinetic energy. Meisner remarked: “The whole ‘fission’ process can thus be described in an essentially classical [physics] way.” Just that simple, right?
Meitner went further to explain how her scientific colleagues had gotten it wrong. When scientists bombarded uranium with neutrons, they believed the uranium nucleus, rather than splitting, captured some neutrons. These captured neutrons were then converted into positively charged protons and thus transformed the uranium into the incrementally larger elements on the periodic table of elements – the so-called “transuranium,” or beyond uranium, elements.
Some people were skeptical that neutron bombardment could produce transuranium elements, including Irene Joliot-Curie – Marie Curie’s daughter – and Meitner. Joliot-Curie had found that one of these new alleged transuranium elements actually behaved chemically just like radium, the element her mother had discovered. Joliot-Curie suggested that it might be just radium (atomic mass = 226) – an element somewhat smaller than uranium – that was coming from the neutron-bombarded uranium.
Meitner had an alternative explanation. She thought that, rather than radium, the element in question might actually be barium – an element with a chemistry very similar to radium. The issue of radium versus barium was very important to Meitner because barium (atomic mass = 139) was a possible fission product according to her split uranium theory, but radium was not – it was too big (atomic mass = 226).
Meitner urged her chemist colleague Otto Hahn to try to further purify the uranium bombardment samples and assess whether they were, in fact, made up of radium or its chemical cousin barium. Hahn complied, and he found that Meitner was correct: the element in the sample was indeed barium, not radium. Hahn’s finding suggested that the uranium nucleus had split into pieces – becoming two different elements with smaller nuclei – just as Meitner had suspected.
As a Jewish woman, Meitner was left behind
Meitner should have been the hero of the day, and the physicists and chemists should have jointly published their findings and waited to receive the world’s accolades for their discovery of nuclear fission. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.
Meitner had two difficulties: She was a Jew living as an exile in Sweden because of the Jewish persecution going on in Nazi Germany, and she was a woman. She might have overcome either one of these obstacles to scientific success, but both proved insurmountable.
Meitner had been working as Hahn’s academic equal when they were on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin together. By all accounts they were close colleagues and friends for many years. When the Nazis took over, however, Meitner was forced to leave Germany. She took a position in Stockholm, and continued to work on nuclear issues with Hahn and his junior colleague Fritz Strassmann through regular correspondence. This working relationship, though not ideal, was still highly productive. The barium discovery was the latest fruit of that collaboration.
Yet when it came time to publish, Hahn knew that including a Jewish woman on the paper would cost him his career in Germany. So he published without her, falsely claiming that the discovery was based solely on insights gleaned from his own chemical purification work, and that any physical insight contributed by Meitner played an insignificant role. All this despite the fact he wouldn’t have even thought to isolate barium from his samples had Meitner not directed him to do so.
Hahn had trouble explaining his own findings, though. In his paper, he put forth no plausible mechanism as to how uranium atoms had split into barium atoms. But Meitner had the explanation. So a few weeks later, Meitner wrote her famous fission letter to the editor, ironically explaining the mechanism of “Hahn’s discovery.”
Even that didn’t help her situation. The Nobel Committee awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei” to Hahn alone. Paradoxically, the word “fission” never appeared in Hahn’s original publication, as Meitner had been the first to coin the term in the letter published afterward.
A controversy has raged about the discovery of nuclear fission ever since, with critics claiming it represents one of the worst examples of blatant racism and sexism by the Nobel committee. Unlike another prominent female nuclear physicist whose career preceded her – Marie Curie – Meitner’s contributions to nuclear physics were never recognized by the Nobel committee. She has been totally left out in the cold, and remains unknown to most of the public.
After the war, Meitner remained in Stockholm and became a Swedish citizen. Later in life, she decided to let bygones be bygones. She reconnected with Hahn, and the two octogenarians resumed their friendship. Although the Nobel committee never acknowledged its mistake, the slight to Meitner was partly mitigated in 1966 when the U.S. Department of Energy jointly awarded her, Hahn and Strassmann its prestigious Enrico Fermi Award “for pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission.” The two-decade late recognition came just in time for Meitner. She and Hahn died within months of each other in 1968; they were both 89 years old.
As I watch thousands of people making their way on foot or arriving by taxi at these events, carrying heavy equipment on carts, bringing items they found at the curb or have had stored in their apartments, I ask myself why they are doing it. Some are aware that e-waste contains lead and other heavy metals that are dangerous to dispose of, but that doesn’t appear to be the main impulse. It is a shame for these items to go to waste. A shame. There is an immorality to throwing away working instruments, which drives New Yorkers to store their old hardware and to go to great lengths to bring it to us, expecting that someone else will use it.
There is an immorality to throwing away working instruments...
I’ll begin with a prototypical image of the morality of not wasting, as portrayed in the first of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s seminal series on her experiences as a young daughter on the American frontier, Little House in the Big Woods. The first chapter includes a description of “Butchering Time,” the annual transformation of an animal into a set of meat products. After slaughtering and gutting the hog, Pa and Uncle Henry cut it up functionally. Nothing is wasted. “Every piece was sprinkled with salt,” before the women’s work begins (14). Ma “tries out” the lard over a flame, carefully extracting the brown cracklings (17). Methodically, she addresses each fragment of flesh, large and small. Once the job is finished, survival during the coming winter is assured. All that remains is the pig’s bladder. It too is used, as a toy, “a little white balloon” (14). Finally, the pigs’ bones go to the dog.
The Little House books, according to Romines, “reinforced and promoted the consumption patterns that many families were compelled to practice: minimal buying, limited travel, family entertainment at home” (113-114). Still, she points out that the books were careful not to critique consumption per se. In fact, Wilder scholar Benjamin LeFebvre suggests that “the texts’ emphasis on self-sufficiency and independent living on the land” reflected “Wilder’s oppositional stance to F. D. Roosevelt’s measures for social relief.”(Footnote: 3) Wilder apparently believed that self-sufficiency and scrupulous avoidance of waste could save one from want. This articulation of individualism implies a specific construction of blame. He who lacks does so because he has squandered the material goods he needs, or has been lazy in the application of labor for such goods. This view is at odds with the notion that social structure enables and constrains individuals and groups unevenly.(Footnote: 4) Self-sufficiency is not possible once land is enclosed and owned by a few; goods can only be bought with wages; and commodities are priced to absorb most of a working-household’s income.(Footnote: 5) Under these circumstances, it’s possible for an individual to go hungry without being wasteful herself. In such cases, where is the wasting taking place?
And first the cherries ripen. Cent and a half a pound. Hell we can’t pick ‘em for that… The birds eat half of each cherry… and on the ground the seeds drop and dry… Purple prunes soften and ripen. My God, we can’t pick them… we can’t pay wages, no matter what wages, and the purple prunes carpet the ground. The little farmers watched debt creep up on them like the tide. They sprayed the trees and sold no crop. They pruned and grafted and could not pick the crop. And the men of knowledge have worked, have considered, and the fruit is rotting (427).
The people came for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges at twenty cents a dozen if they could drive out and pick them up? … men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges, and they are angry at the crime, angry at the people who have come to take the fruit. (427)
In both of these Depression-era works, hunger is a brute example of want, but wants are of course many. Today, it’s certainly possible to survive without a computer or cell phone, but such instruments have become so embedded in daily life that without them, life seems impoverished, and may in the near future be unmanageable. Wilder’s and Steinbeck’s contrasting constructions of the immorality of waste in relation to want are alive and well in the twenty-first American imagination, but are inadequate to understanding contemporary waste problems.
Carl Zimring, author of Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (2005), proposes two evils of waste: inefficiency and pollution.(Footnote: 6) Inefficiency, often considered a barrier to profit within the firm, has historically been the cause of want in the household. If the entire pig is not transformed into storable meat products, the family will go hungry. If the family does not need the entire pig, wasting it represents loss for another who might. If there is no want, then waste as inefficiency is no moral crime.
In the twenty-first century developed world, this disruption is chemical, not bacteriological, as it once was. This trend has proceeded apace with industrialism; today, everyone has manufactured chemicals in her blood.(Footnote: 7) Here we return to the lead, cadmium, and chromium in computer parts that leach in the landfill or are dispersed upon incineration.
The other still involves the notion of inefficiency, but now backwards. Here Steinbeck, not Wilder, accurately denounces the contemporary crime. While waste within the factory has an economic reason to bee minimized, waste moving outside — as effluent or as overstock — does not. Today, waste is linked to profit at unprecedented levels. I’ve witnessed new paperbacks in recycling facilities being kept from rescue by potential readers because of book destruction agreements. A few years ago, The New York Times paid to have recycling bins in Grand Central Station redesigned so as to prevent retrieval of newspapers by a second user.(Footnote: 11) These two cases are relatively minor, blunt instances of a positive requirement by market-based production to offload matter out of place as pollution or junked commodities. This economic state coexists with unfulfilled basic wants for some, surfeit for others, and the latent threat of disease for all.
Let us return to the e-cycling event in New York’s Union Square to see antiquated and contemporary constructions of the immorality of waste at play and in conflict. In the spirit of Wilder, New Yorkers are concerned that an otherwise useable implement, which someone might need, is being discarded. Assumed is that redistribution of old computers would satisfy privation, would redress the fact that the poorest Americans are on the losing side of the digital divide, unable to achieve self-sufficiency because they lack the tools and skills of survival — in this case, hardware and software. This is a mythic and, I would argue, misguided interpretation of the immorality of waste. Even if redistribution to the needy could be accomplished, the pace of change in technology would render such charity obsolete. And if repair and redistribution happened at a significant enough scale to reduce demand for new computers, how would Dell and its like respond? With virtual kerosene.
In reality, the economics of e-cycling conveniently dictate that the majority of computers collected are recycled, not reused, and this requires crushing and extracting the valuable metals. In this particular case, profit happens to be enhanced with a bit of pollution reduction in the bargain. It could just as easily have been the opposite. Depending on markets, the plastics and leaded glass may well be landfilled after the recycling operation. And overall in the economics of electronic equipment, waste will continue as a requirement; how else to endlessly market new models and devices?
After our e-waste event, we hope, though we are not certain, that the firm is not exporting material to be processed by hand in developing countries. But even if e-cycling is done under safe labor conditions in the USA, the molecular danger within the computers is just postponed, not eliminated. This is all recycling is. We are in a marginally better situation because the lead and cadmium are not entering the air, water and ground through technologies of disposal at this point. But the system that introduced them, and continues to introduce them, chugs along unabated, and growing.
A minor tragedy here is that the well-intentioned e-cycler has motivations that are really moral. The structure of the economy does not permit such motivations to yield healthy, safe, or equitable outcomes — although people do feel better. A pure impulse is perverted and wasted. Such derailments erode the potential for significantly changing the present system of material want and waste. This is a crime that goes beyond denunciation.
1. Adriana Kontovrakis, Deputy Director for Waste Prevention, Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling, Personal Communication, New York, New York City Department of Sanitation, April 1, 2007.
2. Food Bank for New York City and City Harvest, Hunger in America 2006: The New York City and State Report, New York, City Harvest, 2006.
3. Benjamin LeFebvre, Personal Communication, January 15, 2007. See also: William Holtz, The Ghost in the Little House: A Life of Rose Wilder Lane, Columbia: U of Miss P, 1993.
4. Joshua Cohen, On Democracy: Toward a Transformation of American Society. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.
5. Robert Brenner, “The Origins of Capitalist Development: A Critique of Neo-Smithian Marxism,” New Left Review, I, 104, July-August 1977.
6. Carl Zimring, Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, New Brunswick, Rutgers University Press, 2005.
7. World Wildlife Fund, Chemicals and Health in Humans, Washington, DC, World Wildlife Fund, May 2003.
8. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Barry Commoner, Science and Survival, New York: Viking Press, 1966.
9. Richard Williamson, et. al. “Gathering Danger: The Urgent Need to Regulate Toxic Substances That Can Bioaccumulate,” Ecology Law Quarterly, 20, 1993, 605.
10. World Wildlife Fund, p. 1.
11. Arianne Chernock, “At Grand Central Terminal, No More Free Newspapers,” New York Times, August 19, 2001, Section 14WC, p. 7, col. 1.