November 7: The unofficial day of women in nuclear science?

November 7, 2022, 12:00PMNuclear News
Curie and Meitner (Photos: Wikicommons)

Marie Curie was born in Warsaw in 1867 on this day, 155 years ago. Exactly 11 years later, in 1878, Lise Meitner was born in Vienna. November 7 is also the date when, in 1911, the Swedish Royal Academy of Science decided to award Curie a second Nobel Prize for her 1898 discovery of the elements radium and polonium (coincidentally, her 44th birthday). Curie, who at age 36 had shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel, later accepted the chemistry prize on December 10, 1911. She remains to this day the only person—man or woman—to receive two Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. (Linus Pauling was also awarded Nobel Prizes in two categories: chemistry and peace.) On this unofficial day of women in nuclear science, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the fundamental discoveries of both Curie and Meitner.

Curie: Delivering a lecture the day after receiving her second Nobel Prize, Curie acknowledged that the discovery of radium and polonium was rightfully credited to both her and her late husband, adding that “the chemical work aimed at isolating radium in the state of the pure salt, and at characterizing it as a new element, was carried out specially by me, but it is intimately connected with our common work.”

“In this field, the importance of radium from the viewpoint of general theories has been decisive,” she said. “The history of the discovery and the isolation of this substance has furnished proof of my hypothesis that radioactivity is an atomic property of matter and can provide a means of seeking new elements. This hypothesis has led to present-day theories of radioactivity, according to which we can predict with certainty the existence of about 30 new elements which we cannot generally either isolate or characterize by chemical methods” (original emphasis).

During World War I, Curie, alongside her daughter and fellow scientist Irene, organized mobile X-ray equipment for the battlefield. The transuranic element curium was discovered in 1944 and named after both Marie and Pierre.

Meitner: Lise Meitner was the first person to describe the splitting of atoms under neutron bombardment as nuclear fission, though it was Otto Hahn alone, Meitner’s longtime colleague, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for that fundamental discovery in 1944, despite Meitner having been nominated as well.

In fact, Meitner was nominated for a Nobel Prize 49 times over 43 years, from 1924 through 1967, 30 times for physics and 19 times for chemistry. She was nominated by 24 different men, several of whom nominated her multiple times (Max Planck nominated her the most times—seven—both for physics and for chemistry). Her nominations came from 10 countries: Denmark, France, Germany, India, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Yet Meitner never received a single Nobel Prize in recognition of her work.

Meitner was the first female professor of physics in Germany, but as a Jewish woman she was forced to flee Nazi Germany, leaving her home and laboratory to relocate in Sweden, where she continued to work for many years. She spent her later years traveling and speaking to women students. Meitner helped discover a stable isotope of the element protactinium, and the element meitnerium, discovered in 1982, was named after her in 1997.

Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that Curie was the only person to receive two Nobels Prizes in two different categories. That was a mistake as Linus Pauling also received two prizes, one in Chemistry and Peace.

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