In every profession, the newcomers rely on the old guard to help them make their way. There are many tales, as that of The Tragic Triumph of M.S. Tswett, where the established powers fail to recognize the achievements of the outsider. Sadly, science is a human endeavor and one can’t write about women in science without mentioning bias and harassment. My observation is that this is most common in that bastion of male dominion, physics. In a recent study of women in astronomy, 82% of them had heard sexiest remarks, 57% had enjoyed verbal sexual harassment, and 9% physical harassment. To put it into perspective, part of getting a Ph.D. is to put up with the abuse of the powerful, but this shouldn’t include sexism. When you reply on those who sexually harass you for approval and letters of reference, it’s a powerless place to be. This is nothing new.
Lise Meitner is a famous case of sexism and betrayal. This occurred at the hands of a male colleague who she considered a close friend. Did this happen hundreds of years ago? No. Less than 100 years ago, in the 1940s science saw perhaps its most infamous blackguard in the person of one Nobel prize winner, Otto Hahn.
Dr. Meitner earned a doctorate in physics in 1905. In 1918, she and her lab partner, Otto Hahn, discovered protactinium. They began a series of experiments designed to make a heavier element than uranium, the largest natural element. They did this by hitting uranium with subatomic particles known as neutrons. Instead of getting larger, the uranium got smaller. It was surely puzzling.
Lise was born to a rich Jewish family and had to flee to the Netherlands during this time of Hitler’s power. However, she had plenty of time to think and wrote to her partner, Hahn, about a new process that they were observing: fission.
Hahn published and later won the Nobel prize for his discover of fission. Did he take the trouble to mention his lab partner of thirty years, who interpreted the results of the experiment for him? No. He did not. In fact, he spoke badly about her behind her back. His excuse: She was in exile when the famous paper had been written. She had won a “Woman of the Year” prize. Wasn’t that enough for her? She was portrayed as having fled Germany with the secret of the bomb and giving it to the Allies. For this, Hahn saw her as a traitor. This whole treatment shattered her self confidence.
Lise herself spoke of the overt sexism she faced. She said that being a woman was “almost half a crime.” She was sad about her treatment by Hahn, but never did despair about not getting the Nobel Prize for her discovery. It had been used to make a weapon and for this she held remorse. Hahn himself never rested easy with it. To honor Lise, element 109 was named Meitnerium. Is there a Hahnium? Well, it was once proposed as a name for element 105, but in the end, this element was named Dubnium after a town in Russia. At least on the periodic table, there’s no place for a sexist jerk.