Why is Lise Meitner 'forgotten' in the Oppenheimer film? The Matilda-effect in 2023
Article and illustration by Ann-Louise Bergström (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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.
- Book: “Fysikkens filosofi – Fra Demokrit til Holger Bech Nielsen”,Bent Raymond Jørgensen, 2016.
- Article, Dansk Kemi, 92, no. 8, 2011, p 10-13; “Lise Meitner – en fysiker i verdensklasse”.
- “Lise Meitner”, Den Store Danske Lex, seen aug. 10, 2023, https://denstoredanske.lex.dk/Lise_Meitner
- Webpage: https://www.nps.gov/mapr/learn/historyculture/female-involvement-in-the-manhattan-project.htm, seen aug. 11, 2023.
- Webpage: https://www.energy.gov/women-manhattan-project, set 11. august 2023.