Irène Joliot-Curie – For the Joy of Science

In 1925, Irène Curie walked into an auditorium of 1000 people to defend her dissertation. This was big news because she was the daughter of two time Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie. The pressure could have been enormous, but as usual Irène was calm, confident, and dressed unfashionably! From an early age, Irène had dealt with her parent’s fame both positive, such as when at the age of six she calmly told the reporter who came to the house that her Nobel Prize winning parents were at the laboratory, and negative when a classmate handed her a newspaper article about her mother’s affair with Paul Langevin. She had come to see fame as something external and of no real importance. She didn’t pursue her research for fame, but for the sheer joy of the science itself.

At first glance, Irène was a quiet, shy child, some might even say somber, but as time would show, she just had little energy or attention for things that in her mind didn’t matter or that bored her. Born in September of 1897, her parents Pierre and Marie Curie were in the midst of their most intense period of research. In spite of this, she was a wanted and welcome addition to the family. Limited time and resources, however, did mean that the young parents needed help, and this came in the form of Pierre’s father, Eugene Curie. Pierre’s mother died shortly after Irène was born, so Eugene moved into the house to take care of her.

Eugene was a more openly affectionate person than either Marie or Pierre, and gave Irène, and later her sister Eve, born in Paris in 1904, much of their emotional foundation. Irène later said that many of her values and beliefs about religion and politics came from her grandfather rather than her mother. When Pierre died in 1906, Marie was so distraught that she wouldn’t let his name be spoken around her. Eugene helped the girls by talking to them and teaching them about their father. After Eugene died in 1910, Marie, Irène, and Eve became much closer and remained close for their entire lives.

Irene Curie as a child with her mother and sister Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

In spite of a more reticent personality, Marie and Eugene agreed on many things. Because of his unique personality and abilities, Pierre’s parents had home-schooled him, and Marie felt that the same approach would be better for Irène. To supplement the public school, she organized a cooperative among other scientists and academics to provide classes in their homes for their children. The subjects ranged from mathematics and science, to literature and art. Emphasis was put on creativity, play, and self-expression. Other physical and practical activities weren’t neglected either. Marie made sure the girls learned to cook, knit, and sew, as well as to swim, bicycle, and ride horseback. Irène was especially athletic. She took long backpacking trips during the summer, frequently swam the Australian crawl in the Seine, and could dance until early in the morning. It didn’t phase her that backpacking and the Australian crawl were considered men’s sports.

From an early age it was clear that Irène was very much like her father. Among her friends she was calm and relaxed, but she was less comfortable with strangers, rarely smiling in public. Her thought process was much like his as well, not as quick as Eve, but a deep analytical thinker. It was also clear that Irène would be good at science. After the cooperative ended, Marie continued to teach Irène mathematics to give her the foundation she needed, even sending problems back and forth in the mail when Marie was away at conferences. After a couple more years in public school, Irène finally entered the Sorbonne to study science.

In 1914, World War I interrupted Irène’s studies. Marie had written to Irène saying that she hoped they could both be of service, so when her mother developed a mobile x-ray unit, she went into the field to help operate and maintain them. But to say that she helped her mother is to greatly understate the situation. The need was so great that they worked independently of each other. Irène went to the front to set up, repair, and operate the units. Often they were used during surgery to help locate shrapnel in the body. When she wasn’t at the front trying to convince experienced military surgeons that a teenaged girl knew more about x-rays and geometry than they did, she was training other technicians. In spite of spending her eighteenth birthday alone at the front, she seems to have handled this time with composure and a confidence that is rare, although her mother never doubted her. Irène later said, “My mother had no more doubts about me than she had about herself.”

Irene and her mother Marie Curie working at a hospital in Belgium in 1915 Copyright © Association Curie Joliot-Curie

Once the war was over, Irène returned to the Radium Institute, run by Marie, to continue her research and study. Here in 1924, just before receiving her doctorate, Irène met Frédéric Joliot. Two years her junior, Frédéric was outgoing and charming. According to their daughter Hélène, they were “opposites in everything.” He was from a big family, had a wide variety of interests, and was much more sociable than Irène, but they shared some very important things. They loved outdoor sports, had similar political views, and loved science. When they were married in October of 1926, they had lunch at Marie’s apartment and went back to work.

Irène and Frédéric worked together for the rest of their lives and collaborated on their most important work. As with other creative teams, their approaches were very different. He moved quickly from one idea to the next, taking creative leaps, while Irène was slower in her thought process, but moved steadily toward logical conclusions. Several times they made important discoveries, but didn’t interpret the information correctly. One of these experiments was similar to that done by Otto Hahn which was interpreted by Lise Meitner leading to Hahn’s Nobel Prize. Finally, in 1935, Irène and Frédéric Joliet-Curie received a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.

In the intervening years, Irène had given birth to a daughter, Hélène in 1927, and to a son Pierre in 1932. She loved being a mother and in many ways was traditional, but she maintained her career. Although Marie died in 1934, she had lived long enough to see the experimental results that she knew would ensure her daughter a Nobel Prize. So in 1935, their lives were marred by only one thing – the growing Fascist threat in Europe.

After 1935, Irène and Frédéric no longer collaborated directly in their work. Frédéric took a position at the Collège de France where he worked in nuclear physics, building a cyclotron and raising funds for scientific research. In this position he became very powerful and contributed greatly to France’s ability to produce nuclear energy. Irène became a professor at the University of Paris, but continued as the research director at the Radium Institute. She also got involved in politics and joined several women’s rights organizations.

Irene and Frederic Joliot in 1934 photo by GFHund for Wikipedia

When the Popular Front, an anti-Fascist coalition, was elected in 1936, Irène was offered and accepted the position of under-secretary of scientific research, making her one of the first women cabinet members in France. As the war progressed, Frédéric joined the resistance and eventually, the Communist party because it was the most active anti-Fascist group in the country. Irène’s activity, however, declined. For almost twenty years she had suffered from tuberculosis and was having to take more and more time away from work and in the Alps on the “rest” cure. Finally, Frédéric, as head of his resistance organization, was forced to go underground and arranged to have Irène and the children smuggled into Switzerland, on June 6, 1944.

After the war, Frédéric was considered a hero, and appointed head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission with Irène as a commissioner. Irène was able to obtain streptomycin to cure her tuberculosis and continue her work for women’s rights and as director of the Radium Institute. For a while things were good, but by 1950, the Cold War was gaining ground and anti-communist sentiments were growing. Both Irène and Frédéric found themselves out of favor and for the first time outside the scientific community. Frédéric was fired from the Commission, and unable to obtain other scientific work, began to work for peace organizations. Irène was at least able to continue her work at the Institute, but the years of work had taken another toll.

Like Pierre and Marie before them, Irène and Frédéric were both suffering from the effects of prolonged exposure to radiation. Their health declined steadily in the 1950s. Even though Marie continued to work and worry about Frédéric’s health, she was finally unable to ignore the effects. On a trip to the Alps, Irène became ill. Returning to Paris, she checked in to the hospital and on March 17, 1856, Irène died of leukemia. Frédéric was too ill to see her for more than a few minutes. He died two years later. By this time the worst of the red scare was past and they were both honored with national funerals. They had spent their lives doing what they loved.

“I discovered in this girl whom other people regarded somewhat as a block of ice, an extraordinary person, sensitive and poetic, who in many ways gave the impression of being a living replica of what her father had been. I had read much about Pierre Curie. I had heard teachers who had known him talking about him and I rediscovered in his daughter the same purity, his good sense, his humility.” ~ Frédéric Joliot-Curie about Irène

Resources
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie by Barbara Goldsmith
Marie Curie – early life
Marie Curie – scientific discoveries and Nobel Prize

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Lise Meitner – Nobel Prize Denied

Lise Meitner in 1906

Lise Meitner in 1906 (source)

In December of 1938, Lise Meitner received a letter from colleagues in Germany explaining their latest experimental results and questioning what these results could mean. For almost 30 years Lise had worked with Otto Hahn, and later Fritz Strassman, performing experiments related to radioactivity. Although she had begun as Hahn’s assistant without pay, their relationship had evolved to the point where she was the recognized expert in matters related to physics; Hahn was a chemist.

Lise’s nephew Otto Frisch was visiting for the holidays and together they discussed the letter she received. Researchers working on radioactivity had known for some time that one element could change into another, such as radium to polonium in Marie Curie’s experiments. But recently several researchers, when bombarding uranium with neutrons, had been finding elements with smaller atomic weights, almost half the atomic weight of uranium. At the time no one believed that the nucleus of an atom could be split. Hahn and Strassman’s research repeated this result. Meitner realized that this was exactly what was happening and that the power that would result from a chain reaction would be immense. Together she and Frisch worked out the mathematics and she conveyed the information to Neils Bohr who was on his way to the United States for a conference. And the rest as they say is history.

I knew this basic scenario when I began to read about Lise Meitner, but as usual there is more to the story. Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of eight children born to Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Philipp, a freethinker and humanist, was one of the first to become a lawyer in Vienna after the professions were opened up to Jews. Hedwig was an accomplished pianist. Their home was filled with music and interesting people. When asked about her childhood Lise remembered all “the unusual goodness of my parents, and the extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere in which my brothers and sisters and I grew up.”

The educational opportunities available to Lise were similar to those available to Emmy Noether in Germany; they consisted primarily of training that would enable a girl to become a good wife and mother. Public education ended for girls at age 14 and they were not admitted to the universities, so there were no secondary preparatory schools for girls. Lise wanted to study physics and her father agreed to pay for tutors if she would complete a teacher training course first. There were few employment opportunities for men or women in physics, and since Lise had shown little interest in marrying this would give her a way to support herself.

Lise studied constantly and by 1901 when Vienna allowed women to enter the university she was able to pass the entrance examinations at the age of 23. Over the next six years, she completed her doctorate in physics and published several papers related primarily to radioactivity. She also spent a year practice teaching French in a girl’s school to ensure a backup means of support. She was fortunate to study under Ludwig Boltzmann in Vienna. He was an inspiring lecturer and a proponent of atomic theory when it was still controversial. Unfortunately, he died in 1906, but he had inspired Lise to continue studying physics if at all possible.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn at the laboratory (source)

Looking for a direction to go in her study, Lise applied to work with Marie Curie, but was rejected. In 1907, Max Planck in Berlin agreed to allow her to audit his lectures. Although Planck’s experiences with women in the sciences had been good, he wasn’t really in favor of it. He did, however, welcome Lise into his home where he had twin daughters her age. Here she would find friendship and music during her stay in Germany. One of the friends she made through Planck was Otto Hahn. Hahn was a chemist working on radiochemistry at Emil Fischer’s Chemistry Institute. He needed a physicist to work with and proposed this idea to Lise; she accepted and they began what would be a very productive working relationship.

Under conditions that will sound familiar if you’ve read my previous posts, Lise began working without pay as Hahn’s assistant at the Fischer Institute. The catch – Fischer didn’t allow women in his facility. (One reason was that he had the idea that women’s hair styles were a fire hazard.) He did “compromise” and let her work in a basement room which had been a carpentry shop and had an outside entrance; she was not allowed upstairs and had to use a toilet down the street. This meant that she couldn’t attend lectures or observe Hahn’s experiments. In spite of this, they published several papers together. In 1908, German universities were opened to women and she was finally allowed to enter the building (and they installed a toilet for women!)

Hahn and Meitner worked well together. At first she was deferential to him, but over time she became the recognized leader of their partnership, in the area of physics. In 1912, they moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, a facility funded by German industrialists. She was still unpaid, but Planck was able to get her an assistant position grading papers at the University with a small salary. Because she was developing a good reputation, the University of Prague offered her a position of associate professor with the possibility for advancement. As a result the Institute finally decided to give her a salary, although at the time still less than Hahn, so she decided to remain in Germany. Finally in 1917, Meitner became the head of her own department of radiophysics at the Institute.

The 1920s and 30s were a “golden era” in physics and Meitner was a prominent part of that. Einstein referred to her as “our Madame Curie” and Wolfgang Paul, a 1989 Nobel Prize winner considered her “a really great scientist” and the superior of Hahn. During this time she and Hahn primarily worked apart, but in 1934, she began experiments that required the expertise of a chemist and Hahn agreed to collaborate again. A number of scientists, including Meitner and Hahn, Enrico Fermi, and Irene Joliot-Curie, began their experimentation with uranium.

Solvay Conference in 1933. Lise Meitner is the second from the right, seated. The other two women in the photo are Irene Joliot-Curie, seated second from the left, and Marie Curie, seated in the center. (source)

Unfortunately, Lise wasn’t competing only with other physicists. In 1933, Jews such as Emmy Noether were expelled from university positions. Although Jewish, Meitner had been baptized a protestant and had an Austrian passport. This, and the fact that the Wilhelm Institute was not a government facility, gave her some protection. This ended however, when Hitler invaded Austria and the Institute was under increasing pressure even from within by Nazi-sympathizers. She now found herself with an invalid passport and a tenuous job. Friends abroad worked feverishly to find her a position and finally in 1938, she slipped over the border into the Netherlands with only a few possessions and moved on to take a position in Sweden.

Hahn and Meitner continued consulting via letter with one secret meeting in Copenhagen in November to plan experiments. These experiments resulted in the letter of December 1938, which she discussed with Otto Frisch. In the letter, Hahn does not draw conclusions and in fact questions the results. Meitner trusted Hahn’s results, he was an excellent chemist, and accepted the obvious conclusion, and that the atom had split. Hahn published his experimental results without drawing conclusions and without crediting Meitner, a move which she understood; he couldn’t officially collaborate with a Jew. She and Frisch published their conclusions soon after along with corroborating experimental results by Frisch. In their paper they coined the term fission to describe what had happened.

Meitner’s recognition of the principle of fission was momentous. When Frisch described the theory to Bohr, he slapped his head and said “Oh what idiots we’ve been.” Understanding the experimental results and knowing that the German’s had the information prompted action within the physics community and then the Allied governments. Meitner was eventually offered a position with the Manhattan Project, which she refused having no desire to work on a bomb.

Everyone in the physics community recognized what Lise had done. Although she wasn’t there for the final experimental results, she had originated the project, gathered the team, worked on it for almost 4 years, and interpreted the final results. Nevertheless, only months after publication Hahn began denying that Meitner had been an important part of the discovery at all. Then in 1944, the Nobel Committee voted secretly to give the Nobel Prize for Chemistry to Hahn, and Hahn alone, for the discovery of nuclear fission. No one disputed that Hahn deserved it, but everyone in the physics community knew that Meitner deserved a Nobel Prize as well.

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner with students at Bryn Mawr in 1959 (source)

Lise Meitner continued to work in Sweden until her retirement, when she moved to England to be near her relatives. In spite of the hurt of Hahn’s betrayal, and Lise’s intense criticism of the scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis, they remained friends. Her family didn’t inform her of Otto Hahn’s death in July of 1968 because of her frail condition, and she died later that year in October. Although denied the Nobel Prize, she led a very fruitful life with recognition from her peers and the love of family and friends. Her nephew Otto Frisch had her tombstone inscribed with the statement, “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Resources
Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime
Nobel Prize Women in Science by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking by William H. Cropper

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.