4 Women Who Rocked Physics

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When asked to name women who have significantly contributed to science, most people shrug and say, "Marie Curie?" In fact, women have added to our scientific repertoire capabilities no less than nuclear fission and modern day alchemy, among many other discoveries.

1. Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a quiet, self-effacing Austrian-Jewish woman who has come to be known "the mother of the atomic bomb." After studying under Boltzmann and Planck (yes, that Boltzmann and Planck), she became the acting director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry in Berlin. It was there that, alongside partner Otto Hahn, she noted in an experiment that uranium-238 nuclei split into barium and krypton, along with several neutrons and a pocket of energy. Meitner was the first to describe and name the process-- "nuclear fission"-- and noted the potential for a chain reaction (Keanu Reeves not included). However, she was exiled from Germany shortly after the Anschluss, and so Hahn and two others published the research in 1938. For this, Hahn two other men won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

2. Chien-Shiung Wu

Wu.jpgChien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was born in China and earned her Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley in 1940. At this time, it was considered a dependable rule in matter behavior that identical particles would always act in a way that was consistent and symmetrical. However, upon observing the beta decay of cobalt-60, Wu noticed that the weak interactions between emitted beta particles caused them to strongly prefer to travel in a certain direction "“ roughly equivalent to watching air rush into a balloon of its own accord. With this research, Wu proved that nature is not always naturally symmetrical, upending a formerly watertight law. The Nobel Prize for Physics in 1957 was awarded to researchers of this discovery; Wu was not among their number.

3. Maria Goeppert-Mayer

mayer.jpgMaria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972) hailed from Germany and attended the University of Gottingen. After stints working with Born and Planck and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, Goeppert-Mayer ended up in Chicago working at the Argonne National Laboratory. While there she worked with Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, learning the ropes of nuclear physics as she went. It was at this time she developed a model of the atomic nucleus, which took the form of shells similar to the atomic shell model. She also discovered that there were certain "magic numbers" of nucleons for which the energy holding them together was less than the preceding number -- for example, it took significantly less energy to hold together 20 nucleons than it did 19 -- and she worked out the supporting mathematics. For this achievement, she won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1963.

4. Harriet Brooks

mcgill.jpgHarriet Brooks (1876-1933) was born in Canada, attended McGill University, and worked as a graduate student under Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford had noticed that radioactive thorium gave off a substance other than radioactive rays, and left it to Brooks to figure out what it was. Brooks identified the "emanation" from thorium as an element in gas form that was, strangely, not thorium. Brooks realized that this meant that one element could, with the right conditions, be used to produce a completely different element. It may sound uncool to discover that alchemy actually works roughly a millennium too late, but on the upside, nuclear transmutation is used today in tokamaks as well as fission power reactors.


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June 9, 2009 - 8:30am
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