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Lise Meitner, Oppenheimer and the Matilda-effect

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Why is Lise Meitner 'forgotten' in the Oppenheimer film? The Matilda-effect in 2023

Article and illustration by Ann-Louise Bergström (

The makers behind this summer’s blockbuster film, “Oppenheimer“, have forgotten – or omitted on purpose – the person, who calculated and formulated the theory behind the atomic fission process (which is the scientific basis for the development of the atomic bomb), the austrian-swedish physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968). Thereby the film supports the “Matilda-effect“, which is the name for the systematic bias against the acknowledgement of female scientists’ contributions. Which migth be understandable for the previous century, but now, in 2023, it seems strange and unfair to not try to repair such unfairness.

Lise, herself, did absolutely not want to be involved in the development of the bomb (on my drawing, she is turning her face away from the bomb), but it is strange that her name is not mentioned in the film, as her close collaboration partners, Otto Hahn and Robert Frisch, are mentioned and acknowledged as the scientists behind the fission theory.

There were, actually, many women involved in the scientific work of the Manhattan project, but in the trailer of the film, the only women shown are either hanging laundry or supporting their men.

Lise Meitner was, in her life, overseen unfairly many times. She never got a Nobel prize (although she was nomiated several times, even by Niels Bohr) for her pioneering work with the theory, whereas Otto Hahn did. The reason? Probably that she was not only a woman – she was of jewish origin as well.

Facts about Lise Meitner:

  • Born in Vienna in 1878 and died in Cambridge in 1968. She was thus living in the same period as Marie Curie (who inspired Lise to work with radioactivity) and the danish seismologist Inge Lehmann (another woman, who was fabulous at math, read more about her and other women in science here on my blog).
  • Was one of the first women to study at the University of Vienna, from where she graduated in 1907.
  • Became the first, female professor in Germany, in 1926.

Most important scientific findings and results:

  • Explains, as the first ever, the atomic fission process (after having conducted experiments together with her nephew, Robert Frish, and collaborator Otto Hahn)
  • Discovers in 1918, together with Otto Hahn, a new, long-lived isotope of the element Protactinium. Before that, it was believed that Uranium was the heaviest element.
  • Discovers the Auger-Meitner-effect in 1928 (the phenomena, whereby an electron is filling an empty space in the atom and energy is released).
  • Gets an element named after her, Meitneterium (element no. 109).

Scientific awards and prizes:

  • Leibniz price silver medal in 1928.
  • Enrico Fermi prize in 1966.
  • Many other prizes and awards, but never the Nobel prize.

Unfairnesses, Lise was exposed to:

  • Could not start in high school after graduation from elementary school, because girls were not allowed in high schools in Austria at that time. Had to wait several years and then became one of the first 4 girls in Austria to get high school graduation.
  • Was in the beginning not allowed to use the bath room at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin, when she worked as a professor there, because she was a woman. So she had to use a toilet in a nearby hotel.
  • Worked without pay in many of the first years of her research career, in contrast to her close collaboration partner, Otto Hahn.
  • Had to flee from Germany in 1938 because she was of jewish origin. Niels Bohr invited her to his laboratory in Copenhagen, but this was not safe enough and thus she went to Sweden.
  • In Sweden (at the laboratory of Karl Sigbahn in Uppsala), she was treated like a technician with a very low salary, although she at this point is a well known and respected scientist.
  • Was not included as an author on the scientific paper, where Robert Frisch explained the experiment, he and Lise had made to discover the fission process. Frisch did, however, not explain the actual theory behind, which Lise then did in a later paper.
  • Was (and is still!) often referred to as Hahn’s “assistant” or “technician” although she was his coworker.
  • Was nominated to the Nobel Prize 48 times (in both physics and chemistry), but never got it. But Otto Hahn did.


New illustrations

AI generated images with Midjourney

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I have recently been on a course in Infographics on the Danish School for Journalism (Danmarks Medie- og Journalisthøjskole) where I learned a lot about infographics, data visualization and animation. I also got to play a bit with AI-generated images. It was very interesting, but also sometimes created some funny or nonsens-like results. I often need to draw patient situations, for instance psychiatric patients with a psychiatrist. The image below is an example of what was generated from the text: “45-year old psychiatrist with patient, cartoon-style, isolated on white”.

I tried several times, with variation. The psychiatrist always turned out to be a man (unless I specifically stated that it should be a woman). And 45-year-old always gave grey hair. Here are more results, some better than other.

I also tried to make it draw a mitochondria in cartoon-style. The result was very pretty, but biologically, it was nonsens. There is still a need for human illustrators, I think.

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Infographic: 9 tips for better teenage sleep

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Sleep is an extremely important – and quite underestimated – part of a good and healthy life. This is indeed the case for teenagers and adolescents, whos brains are under dramatic reconstruction. Bad sleep in teenagers and young adults is associated with a lot of mental, physical and social problems.

Unfortunately, the proportion of young people experiencing sleep problems is increasing in many countries (including Denmark, as seen in the report referenced below).

But how is it possible to help a teenager (or oneself) to sleep better? I have tried to summarize this in this infographic with 9 good advices/tips. The tips are from the article artiklen “Sleep in adolescence: physiology, cognition and mental health” by Tarokh et al., 2016.

One reason that sleep is so important in teenagers and adolescents is the dramatic changes, that take place in the function and structure of the brain during these years. For instance, the ‘pruning’ of synaptic connections that are not used frequently. And the ‘strengthening’ of the connections that are used frequently. Watch my animation about this brain remodelling in adolescents.

You can also watch my animation that describes how the so-called glymphatic system rinses our brain during sleep and thereby reduces the risk of getting dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Find it here.


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The discovery of monkey pox – by Preben von Magnus

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The virus infection monkey pox (abe-kopper in Danish), which has appeared in several, European countries during the last weeks, was first identified, described and named in 1958 by the Danish medical doctor Preben von Magnus (1912-1973). Preben von Magnus worked as a researcher at ’Statens seruminstitut’ in Copenhagen. At that time, cynomolgus monkeys (a type of macaques) were used as laboratory animals and Preben and his colleagues observed that some of the imported monkeys fell sick with something resembling smallpox (kopper).

In the same period, due to the wish to eradicate smallpox from the world, there was fear that smallpox could have natural reservoirs, for instance in non-human primates. So, the Danish researchers isolated virus from the ’pustules’ on the sick animals and carefully analysed it. First they cultivated it on chick embryo membranes and cellular cultures – where after they performed careful observations by electron microscopy. By this, they could conclude that the virus was not smallpox, but instead a new type of pox virus that they named monkey pox.

Preben von Magnus was a successful virologist who also made significant, scientific contributions within other virus types (e.g. influenza and polio virus) and within vaccinology.  He and his wife, Herdis von Magnus, who also was a successful researcher at Statens Seruminstitute, led the Danish polio vaccination program in that they developed and produced a Danish variant of the polio vaccine that was originally developed by the American researcher Jonas Salk. Preben also served on the famous, Danish hospital ship named Jutlandia, in Korea during the Korean war. In 1959, he was appointed as director of Statens Seruminstitute.



”A pox-like disease in cynomolgus monkeys”, Acta Pathol. Microbiol. Immunol. Scand., 1959, 46, 156-176.

”Smallpox and Monkey pox in non-human primates”, 1968

”Preben von Magnus”, Speech by Ole Maaleøe at the Royal Danish Society of Sciences and Letters, Feb. 22, 1974.

”The natural history of smallpox”, New Scientist, 1978

”Bekæmpelse af infektionssygdomme – Statens Seruminstitut 1902-2002”, Klaus Jensen.


Visit to European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden

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Together with the association for Danish Science Journalists (Danske videnskabsjournalister), I went to visit the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund in Sweden. It was super-interesting!

ESS is a huge research facility under construction. When finished in a couple of years from now, it will be the world’s largest and most powerful neutron source. The principle behind it is that an extremely powerful proton-beam is shot into a large target (made of Tungsten), whereby neutrons are released and spread with large energy in many directions. These neutrons are guided through channels, and shot into different samples. By shooting neutrons onto the samples, lots of information about the sample is generated. The samples analyzed can be various different materials, biological specimens, archaeological specimens and more.

ESS is a collaboration between 13 different, European countries (of which Sweden and Denmark are the host countries) and is expected to give new insigths in various different research fields.

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Infographic about the adolescent brain development

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The brain is changing a lot during adolescence to shape itself for future needs. A lot is happening on the molecular, cellular, structural and functional level. Teenagers can seem to have lost their head sometimes, but what is going on is actually logic and needed. They are working hard to morph their brain into an adult one. In this infographic, I have tried to summarize some of the major changes.

Infographic about the adolescent brain
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Infographic about Space Physiology

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Infographic about space physiology scientific illustration

I love to make illustrative infographics that summarizes scientific subjects. Here is one about Space Physiology – thus, what happens during long time in space.

It is inspired by the fact that ESA (The European Space Agency) a few weeks ago announced that the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen is again going on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS). It will be mid 2023 or early 2024.

It is the second time that Andreas will go on a space mission. Last time, he stayed 10 days at the ISS, but this time the mission will be significantly longer.

The effects mostly come from microgravity (thus, almost no gravity), but also cosmic radiation and lack of daylight (and a day-and-night-cyclus) affects the body.

–          “An overview of space medicine”, PD Hodkinson et al, 2017
–          ESA announcement from March 24, 2022
–         “Microgravity and space medicine”, Daniella Grim, 2021

New animations

The Glymphatic System

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There are many good answers to this question, but one of them is – we need brain wash!

This is taken care of by the GLYMPHATIC system, an amazing system that – during sleep (especially deep sleep) – helps the brain to get rid of cellular waste, that could otherwise clot up the brain and ultimately lead to dementia (e.g. Alzheimers disease).

The brain is a very dense network of both neurons (nerve cells) and glia cells (support cells). During wakefulness, cellular waste builds up, just like when our daily activities generate waste. However, the activity is too high – and the space too limited – to wash away the waste. When we fall asleep, nerve cells change their activity and the support cells named astrocytes shrink in size and leave more space. This opens up for fluid coming from the so-called perivascular space (described in film), which then can flow into the cell-dense areas. The flow goes from arteries to veins and washes out cellular waste products so that we can wake up refreshed and ready for new activities.

An analogy could be garbage trucks, that cannot work during the day because of heavy traffic and activity. But at nigth, the activity and traffic ceases and waste can be picked up and removed.

The system was described and named by the Danish scientist Maiken Nedergaard in 2013 (watch a full talk with her from the Europhysiology conference in 2018, describing the system in detail here:

Scientific references in the end of the film.