Ladies of the Laboratory 1: Challanging the Greats
Written by Lewis D. Eigen
Ida Noddack finished reading the draft of the article she had written. She had already read it over dozens of times. She had corrected every mistake she could find. A few friends had checked the article. She had rewritten much of the article over and over. It was ready to go to the publisher, and she knew it. Yet she didn’t want to send it. She feared the reaction of other people to her article. Of what was she so afraid?
The year was 1935. The place, Berlin, Germany. Ida Noddack was already a very controversial woman. She was a scientist—a chemist and a physicist. She was the first woman to earn a doctorate in Chemistry in Germany and one of the first in the world, when in 1919, she earned that advanced degree. A doctorate in chemistry was a very difficult and rare degree for anyone, but for a young 23 year old young lady at the time it was inconceivable to most people.
Things were very different in 1919 than they are today—especially with respect to girls and women in society.
At that time, few women every studied sciences like physics and chemistry at any level. Elementary and high schools were not coed. Many girls never went to school, and the others went to school only to learn the “ladylike” graces and skills that a “good wife” should have. Girls would marry and at the time, unless they were very poor, they did not work at any occupation. They were expected to be housewives and mothers. And that is what most of the girls wanted to do also. They had been brought up in a culture that accepted a woman’s place only as a wife and mother, and it never occurred to most young girls that they might ever even try to work at an occupation. And as for science, it was assumed by almost all that this was the province of boys and men. Amazing breakthroughs had been taking place in the scientific world at the beginning of the 20th century. Albert Einstein had changed the way every scientist thought when as a young man in 1905, he published his Special Theory of Relativity. Even though he was a scientific nobody at the time, his work was so profound that his ideas traveled around the world and in a few years, this young physicist who could not get a job teaching or doing physics, was world famous. He had been working at the Swiss Patent Office as a clerk while he developed his great ideas.
At the time Einstein published his great work, there were very few female scientists anywhere in the world, but two of them played a significant part in his work. One was Marie Curie, a Polish scientist who had studied mathematics and physics at the University of Paris. She was a friend of Einstein’s. They were good friends and colleagues who would take hiking vacations together with their young children and Einstein’s wife. The children would play while the adults talked science. The other woman was Albert Einstein’s wife who was his girlfriend in 1905 when he revealed the Theory of Relativity to the world. Her name was Mileva Marić, a Serbian girl, who was a classmate of Albert Einstein’s when he was studying at the university. She too was a science student—the only female. Theirs was a torrid love affair of science and sex. But Mileva was the first person who heard Albert Einstein’s radical notions and helped him think them through.
One beautiful day, they were walking in the park in Zurich, and they sat down on the grass. She lay with her head in his lap, when he confessed his ideas to her.
“Sometimes I imagine that I am riding on top of a rocket traveling through space at the speed of light. What would I see? What if I held a mirror in front of my face. What would I see then? “
“If you put it that way, you would not see your face in the mirror I think,” she said. “The vehicle is going at the speed of light. You are on the vehicle, so you too are going at the speed of light. You are holding the mirror, so the mirror is traveling at the speed of light. The light particles or waves from your face can only travel at the speed of light, so they can never catch up and reach the mirror. You would have no reflection.”
“That is what I think,” said Albert, “but I am afraid that most people would say that was impossible. But I think not.”
“If we were both sitting on the rocket going at the speed of light and I was in front of you looking backwards and you were looking forward, would I look as pretty?”
“If you were in front, I could see you and you would be as beautiful as ever, but I fear that you might not be able to see me. The light from my face could not travel faster than the speed of light, our rate of travel. So my light particles could never catch up with you to see them.”
“I don’t think I like the idea of not keeping you in my sight at all times. I’m too jealous. But we will never know I guess. We will never be able to ride a rocket at the speed of light.”
”We may not have to travel at light speed to prove that my reflection in the mirror would not be visible.”
“How else could you prove it?” she asked.
“I think it might be done mathematically. If we see the world from the point of view of traveling at light speed or close to it, we might be able to express it mathematically. I think a lot of things would change.”
After speculating on what the world might be like at light speed, they would return to the apartment they shared—a practice that was considered very improper for an unmarried couple in the early 20th century in Switzerland and the rest of Europe. However, neither of them were very conventional young people. They were both very well educated, away from their homes, and neither had any social position to maintain. However, as young people, their hormones were raging and showing affection in a public park was unacceptable in those days, so they rushed back to their apartment.
Life was very simple for Einstein and Mileva in their early days. But Ida Noddack had a much more complex situation. She had struggled in a man’s field. There were no other girls or women for support—no one to share problems with. It had taken a number of years, and she had finally been accepted by some of the male scientists. She had earned a reputation by discovering a new element together with two male colleagues. That is an achievement that few scientists of either gender reach. It really frosted her at first when most people, including most scientists, assumed that the two men had discovered the new element and she had been the assistant. She and her two male colleagues had known that she had been as important as the other two and even more so in some parts of the process of finding an element that the chemists and physicists theoretically felt should exist but no one had every proved it or found the element. In all of human history there were fewer than one hundred scientists who had ever discovered a new element, and she was one. The only other woman on that list had been the great Marie Curie.
After publishing many scientific papers, Ida Noddack had earned the grudging respect of many of the male scientists who were not hopeless chauvinists. She had been the first woman to work as a chemist in a German company and had proven herself there. Every man who received a doctorate in Chemistry from a major German university was immediately accepted as a competent chemist, but when she was awarded her degree, it was not enough. She had to prove herself everyplace she went to every new male scientist she ran into. And the thing was that most of them didn’t know as much as she did.
At first she quickly engaged the men in complex discussions to prove that she knew as much and usually more than they did. Not that she was smarter than them all, but she was more so than many. The reason she soon realized that she knew more than most of her contemporaries was that she had worked a lot harder in school. The male students in her classed and the teachers just assumed that she could not master the complex material. That she, like women in general, did not have the brain structure to master the complex mathematics that had become so crucial to physics and Chemistry ever since the Englishman, Sir Isaac Newton, had invented calculus in 1686. Every time a male scientist made a mistake or didn’t know something, it was assumed that he had forgotten it or had just made a careless error. But if she ever made a mistake or didn’t know something, the most of the men assumed that she was incapable of understanding it. She had been humiliated that way a few times, but soon resolved that she would not be embarrassed that way and learned everything she could. If she could not understand something, she would spend hours and days going over it until she did. Male scientists could make mistakes and not understand things and still be good scientists. She didn’t think that she could.
With her harder work and incessant study, she was more advanced than most of the men. When she first went to work as a chemist, she rapidly was able to show that she knew more and understood more than most of the men, including many with much more experience. But then she found that the men were even more hostile than when they thought that she was not fully qualified. Ida learned as most young women did, that guys had fragile egos. They didn’t like to be bested in public by anyone. But being shown up by a girl in a traditionally male area was very hard on them. It was OK for a young woman to be able to sew or cook things that the males could not, but for most of these men, it was humiliating that a woman could solve a differential equation faster than they could.
Ida learned what most young women have to learn about young men. Don’t show them up! Especially in front of other people. The guy who had been embarrassed resented her—often for years. The other men were threatened by her, and feared that she might embarrass them some day.
Ida soon developed some of the techniques that women have used for centuries in dealing with men. Never argue with them or correct them in public or where there was another person around. If the observer was a man it was bad enough, but if another woman, especially a pretty one, was observing, the guy would become upset or even angry. A female scientist would lose either way. If she didn’t take part in the arguments and discussions of the other scientists, she was thought of as not competent and in their league. If she engaged, and a man was wrong, he was embarrassed and mad at her and other guys were threatened. But she learned to do what women have been doing for years. She would participate in the conversations, but would always be careful not to show up a male scientist. If she thought he was wrong, she would not correct him as the other males would. She “sat on her tongue” as her mother and aunts phrased it. When she wanted to discuss and argue a scientific point seriously with one of the men, she would wait until they were alone. Then if she knew something he did not, he would not be publicly embarrassed. She even developed some clever techniques for explaining things to male scientists that they might not know. She would when alone with her colleague say, “Dr. Kornhouser, you know the problem of the stability of the aniline dye stability we were discussing at the meeting this morning. Well, I had some thoughts, but I want to think them through and would appreciate your reaction as someone with more experience than I. Could you help me clarify my thinking?”
Dr. Kornhouser was always flattered and wanted to be chivalrous and provide guidance to the young woman. She would then explain the solution sounding much more tentative about it than she really was. Sometimes she would leave out something obvious, so that he could tell her that she was on the right track but had just forgotten something. He could then remind her and help. After she conveyed her solution to the problem, she would ask, “I was thinking of suggesting it at the next meeting, but I was not sure that I was on the right track. Now that you have helped me clarify my thinking, I feel more confident. But could you help me in presenting it at the next meeting. You’re so good at expressing complex material so that the others can understand it.”
Dr. Kornhouser, or some other male colleague, would then introduce the subject at the next meeting and would often explain her idea to the group but would always give her credit for the basic idea to which he contributed some refinement and helped explain it. Soon, she was solving more problems than most of the men who were not as threatened, embarrassed and angry.
Every once in a while she would get angry at having to play these games and just wanted to fight it out the way the men did, but she knew that would not get the results she wanted.
Yet here Ida was again, almost 40 years old and still having to worry about embarrassing male colleagues. And that is what would happen if she published this article she had drafted.
All serious scientific work in science is reported to other scientists outside of one’s own university or laboratory, by presenting papers at scientific meetings and / or publishing them in scientific journals. Most publications would not embarrass other scientists. Often one scientist would demonstrate something new that showed that past views were not quite correct or even wrong. This was common in science, where no scientist had been right for 100 years since Aristotle.
There was one situation in science which did often upset people. That is where one scientist had made an error, a mistake, and concluded something that could not really be proved except by an error in logic or some other mistake. And that is the situation that Ida Noddack had found herself in. She had found a serious error in another scientist’s publication. That would have been problem enough. The scientist who made the mistake would be publicly criticized. But he was not the only one who might be embarrassed. Scientific journals had editorial boards—other scientists who would read and approve papers before publication and assure the scientific community that there were no errors or blunders. She would publish a paper that might not only embarrass the scientist who wrote it, but also embarrass all the editors who had reviewed the original paper and said that everything was fine. Why didn’t they catch the error?
Unfortunately, Ida hadn’t read the paper and discovered the error as soon as it had been published. Several months had elapsed. The findings of the original scientist which she now claimed were erroneous, would have been taught by professors all over Europe and the United States to thousands of students. All those students would then wonder, “why didn’t my professor discover the error. Maybe he is not so great.”
So publishing a paper demonstrating an error by another scientist always had a potential for embarrassment, but the scientific world which had few women at all, were not used to women finding the errors when the male scientists all missed the problem.
She had written the article over and over to be as tactful as she could. But no matter how nicely she said it, the fact remained is that one of the few female scientists would be telling all the men that they had been wrong and had failed to find what she had found. This would be difficult enough, but the scientist whose error she had discovered was not just any old physicist or chemist. It was Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who was thought of as one of the great young scientists in the world. Fermi was not yet in the same league as Albert Einstein or Nils Bohr, but was in the next level in terms of reputation. Fermi was also one of the most popular scientists of the age. Some scientists, like other professionals, were very skilled at their field but jerks as people. Few liked them even though they admired the jerk’s work. But Fermi was not arrogant, very sociable and very brilliant. Ida Noddack, when she discovered Fermi’s error, assumed that he had just made a mistake. It had happened to her and to every scientist, often more than once. They thought they had something right, they had the data or the mathematics to prove it, but they had forgotten to take something into account. In this case Fermi had thought that he had developed elements heavier than uranium which was then the heaviest element known to science. His proof was absolutely right for most of the elements, but even then, scientists realized that the heavier elements like uranium behaved slightly differently under some circumstances. Ida had realized that Fermi’s proof broke down with the heavier elements. Fermi had not taken the heaviness factor into consideration. Ida didn’t know whether or not the properties that Fermi proved for the lighter elements actually held true for the heavier ones also, but she did know that his proof was correct for the lighter elements but the proof’s logic failed with the heavier elements.
Ida had been at this point several times—about to send the article to the journal editors. Each time she chickened out. A few months ago, she was ready to send the article for publication. But she began to hear rumors that Enrico Fermi was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for the very work that she would claim was wrong.
Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, had left a lot of money in his will to award a big prize each year to scientists who had made major accomplishments. It was international in nature and the so called Nobel Laureates (the ones who won the prizes) were thought of by many as the best scientists in the world. Here Ida was, taking the scientific work for which the famous Enrico Fermi might win the Nobel Prize at any minute, and she was telling the scientific world that Fermi was wrong.
Who would believe her initially? Would the other scientists do the analysis she did and realize that Fermi had made a mistake, or would they assume that she was not competent enough to criticize great science? The worst sexists would joke that she must have been having her period with her hormones overriding her brain when she claimed that Fermi was wrong.
As much as all this worried her, when she really faced her fears, she could cope with the reaction of the chauvinists and the derision of male scientists. She had learned to cope with this. When she really faced her own feelings, she knew that there was something else that she feared. And that something else was the fear that she might be wrong! What if she had made the mistake—not Fermi? She knew that Fermi was more creative than she was. She never could have thought up his approach to the physics problem. She was smart enough and well trained enough to understand it, but she knew she wasn’t really in Fermi’s league. But very few other scientists were? If she had to bet on herself verses Fermi, she would normally bet on him as would almost all in the scientific world. She had been over and over it, again and again. Fermi made a mistake, and she seemed to be the first person to discover it. Why? There were hundreds of other scientists who had read his papers—thousands maybe. Many of them had taught Fermi’s methods and equations to students several times. If Fermi was wrong why didn’t any of them find the error. Why didn’t Albert Einstein or Nils Bohr find the error? The had definitely read his article and praised it? Ida knew that some scientists loved nothing better than to find errors in other people’s work; they are very aggressive that way. But she was not. If anything, she always assumed that colleagues knew what they were talking about and had checked their work for errors before they published. Sometimes she thought that the aggressiveness of some of the male scientists was an excess of male hormones, but she had decided earlier that she would not try and out macho the male scientists. She would be herself and so far she had done reasonably well with that approach. She was respected by most of the male scientists who had worked with her, and loved by one—the physicist she had worked with to find the new element. For each of them, the other was the perfect mate. For she thought when you spend the vast majority of your waking hours working at something as intense as scientific research, it is hard to shift gears and date or marry someone who not knows little or nothing about what you do, but could not understand it even if they did. The male scientists didn’t seem to worry about that. Most of them married nice airheads. They really had no alternative as there were no girls or women who had the education to understand their work.
Walter Noddack had first been a research collaborator, and not as bad as most of the male sexists of the day. The more he worked with Ida, the more he became attracted to her at several levels—intellectually, romantically, and as a co-worker. The exhilarating experience discovering a new element together had cemented their bond and they married soon thereafter in 1925. Ida was 30 and Walter, 32.
Walter of course was the first person she told when she first thought that Enrico Fermi had made the error. His first reaction was that this was difficult to believe; and that had been Ida’s also. She showed Walter her analysis of Fermi’s paper, and he could not find anything wrong with her logic or mathematics. But Walter was not as good a mathematician as Ida; his strength was in the more practical and less theoretical aspects of physics and chemistry which had become what they are today—mostly mathematical. It was comforting that Walter did not find anything wrong with her analysis of Fermi’s paper, but as he was the first to point out, he was not exactly a world class expert in the area.
If one of the men had first discovered Fermi’s possible error, they probably would have used their “old boy’s network” and quietly and confidentially sought out the views of other leading scientists who would be very circumspect. No one would claim that Fermi was wrong. They would pose the inquiry as one of their abstract games: “What if a bright student claimed that Fermi might had made an error? What if he produced this argument? (Ida’s) What is the best way to show him that he was wrong? The other guys would examine the argument, and if they found an error in the analysis, would say with a wink and a nod, that this is how the student should be shown his faulty approach. No one would indicate or say that it was the male scientist who had the faulty approach.
However, Ida, one of the few women scientists did not have that kind of network; she was not a professor, positions reserved for men. If she approached other scientists, the word would be out, and soon there would be a rumor all over European science that some German woman claiming to be a scientist was accusing the great Enrico Fermi of being wrong. It was better to publish her argument for all to see. At least that way she could be sure that others would at least see her whole analysis and all her equations. If she knew Fermi or had a friend or mentor who did, the best thing would have been to approach him directly with her analysis. But she had no contacts; Fermi was from a different culture and country. Ironically, if she had sent Fermi a letter, he was the kind of personality who would almost assuredly read it, and if she was right, thank her for it. But she had no way of knowing that. Most of the scientists she knew didn’t take too well to being shown up by a woman. She found that out early. There was no way for her to know that most of the great scientists had enough ego strength and intellectual integrity that they would value criticism and be the first to admit an error they had made. It was the average and mediocre ones generally who were most defensive.
But that was one of the disadvantages to being a woman scientist. She worked in her own lab with a few men who had finally come to realize her skill and talent. She attended a few scientific meetings and even delivered several papers, but she wasn’t in the network. So she did not have the advantage of having checked her work with a number of other leading scientists. Her worst fear was that she would submit her paper, and one or more of the editors of the journal would find that it was SHE who made the error and Fermi had been right after all. They would reject her paper and get the world around that she had unfairly and incorrectly attacked the great Enrico Fermi. Her name would be sullied scientifically and she would be socially isolated from the male scientists more than ever.
Great and good scientists have to be risk takers. A good scientist has to discover or prove something new. When it is new, only he (or in this case she) knows it and has to convince his colleagues and sometimes the general public. The good scientist has to change the way others think from then on. Sometimes acceptance comes quickly, but often it not only takes years, but does not occur even in the scientist’s lifetime. But if the scientist is intimidated by public or peer opinion, he or she would not stay with the new beliefs and findings. There is no safe way to tell everyone else something that they never knew before. Reactions can be of all kind. Galileo was persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church for claiming that the Earth revolved around the sun. Georg Cantor was attacked by most of his fellow mathematicians for claiming that there could be infinite numbers. He went to his grave, not being allowed to lecture at some universities even though he was a distinguished professor. The developer of the Big Bang Theory which we now know was the explanation for the creation of the universe, was a scientist and priest by the name of Georges Lemaître. When he showed other scientists his analysis and equations, even Albert Einstein, then the greatest scientist in the world rejected his work and said that his mathematics was interesting but he didn’t understand much about physics. Most people in any field cannot stand up to that kind of criticism and still keep trying to persuade others. Great scientists like Einstein, after thinking about Lemaître’s arguments and analyzing his work, change their mind, and Einstein not only did but traveled with Lemaître giving scientific speeches and describing le Matre’s work as the best explanation of the creation of the universe. But Father Lemaître had to hang in there to get to that point.
Ida Noddack was not a shrinking violet whose own thinking was very dependent on others. She could not have even gotten through a science curriculum as a girl if she was easily intimidated by others—because virtually all others had always told her she was wrong. It was silly for a girl to learn mathematics; it was foolish to work so hard at learning science; it was terrible for her early social life to be smarter than all the boys; it was a waste of her time as she could never get a Science doctorate; she would likely never get a job as a scientist; no one would pay any attention to her if she by some miracle became a scientist; she would never find a husband. She had to be a kind of rebel from her earliest formative years, otherwise she would never have learned the science and mathematics to even suspect that Fermi had erred.
Intellectual courage like other kinds of courage does not mean an absence of fear. It is the fool who does not see the reality of the risks. The person of courage analyses and integrates the fear, balances the issues, and where appropriate, goes ahead and takes the risk anyway. That is just what Ida Noddack did. She finally sent her article to the journal publisher and editors. But she had doubts—big doubts. “Why hadn’t any of the other scientists found Fermi’s error—especially the ones smarter and more experienced than she?” But she went ahead anyway with only the support of Walter and a few close friends. But it was Ida who was out there on the thin ice.
To their credit, the journal editors could find nothing wrong with Ida’s analysis, and it was published. There were some scientists who doubted her analysis. It was unlikely that the great Fermi had made an error, and it was much more unlikely that even if he did, no man would find it, but a woman would. Fermi himself was very gracious and appreciative. Intuitively he had thought he had been right and developed a proof to demonstrate that. But the proof, just as Ida had claimed, broke down with uranium and the heavy elements. Fermi’s physics were right; it was his proof that was wrong. But it took a few years before Fermi and others could offer a correct proof, but were it not for Ida Noddack, they would not have even known that they needed to make the correction. Ironically, despite the error, Enrico Fermi was awarded the Nobel Prize for the original paper he had written—the one with the big mistake. Some feminists look back at the situation and say:
“A man writes a scientific paper and makes a big mistake and is wrong. A woman is the only scientist who had the talent and vision to see that the man was wrong. She takes great risk to her own reputation and calls it to the attention to the scientific community. She is vindicated. She was right. The man was wrong. She got nothing. He got the Nobel Prize.”
However, while that analysis might seem correct from a fairness and justice point of view, it does not take into account the nature and culture of science. The greatest acclaim in science has always gone to the scientists who created a new way of doing something important or changed the way of thinking about the world. Fermi had been brilliant in how he figured out what was true about the elements and giving other scientists a new way of looking at things. That was why Ida had originally read his paper. She herself thought not only that the work was brilliant, but it changed and improved her understanding of the physics of the elements. She also realized that Fermi had made an error in part of his proof. Even as she showed how Fermi was wrong she appreciated how important and brilliant his world had been. She never felt that she should have received the Nobel Prize for her correction of Fermi’s error. No one—even males—won a Nobel Prize for just finding another scientist’s mistake. Great science does not consist of doing things right—it consists of doing the right thing, and Ida understood that as much as any scientist. A science student can score 100 on every test and never become a good scientist. Another one may not do extremely well in school (Albert Einstein) but become a great scientist. Ida never thought that her work was that creative, although a few others did. She and her husband Walter received three nominations for the Nobel Prize for the other work that they did, but they never won. However, it is only the extremely good scientists who ever even get nominated. Maybe one out of a thousand. Ida was never one of the few “greatest scientists” but she was one of the best of the second tier where only a few men ever reached.
So how did Ida Noddack get to the point where she made the contributions that she did in a country and culture which made it virtually impossible for a woman to do so?
Ida was born in 1896 in Lackhausen, Germany. Her family name was Tacke.
She was the only female studying for a doctorate at the Technical University of Berlin, and she was awarded her engineering degree in 1919 when she was 23 years old. She was not only very bright but worked harder than most. As a result, she was awarded the prize as the best student at the University in both Chemistry and Metallurgy. Two years later she was awarded her PhD, the only doctoral level chemist then graduating in Germany.
As a result of her experience with her father’s business, Ida accepted a job with Allgemeine Electrical Works. She was the first female chemist who worked in a German company. Even Lisa Meitner, the first woman physicist in Germany who was well known and respected by German scientists and 18 years older than Ida had not worked for a German company. Without Meitner’s success paving the way, Ida probably could not have gotten a job offer from German industry. German companies who would never have considered hiring a female scientist when Lisa Meitner graduated, wished they could get her today. But she was a distinguished researcher and even had been appointed a professor. She actually had a staff of male assistants.
That seemed to be the story of women. Each woman who achieved another step towards equality had benefitted by women before them. However, here Lisa was working for a hot company that was taking advantage of the many businesses that the use of electricity had made possible. The American, Thomas Edison, had taken a known scientific principle and created an industry—actually several industries. Scientists had known for some time that if a magnet were moved along a wire, electrical current would be produced in the wire. The magnetic energy and the mechanical energy of moving the magnet was transformed into electrical energy. Edison had cleverly invented machines he called generators that could be powered by steam or water power and move wires around a magnet or the magnet around wires and produce electricity—a lot of electricity. Enough to light bulbs which Edison also invented. Everyone wanted electric light instead of using candles or the weaker and more dangerous gas light. And the electricity could power engines in smaller spaces than steam required and was a lot safer too. Electricity could be transformed to heat and maybe would someday replace fires for heating. And Ida was right in the middle of this new area.
However, Ida was not very happy. Sometimes you want something so badly, work to attain it, finally do, and then you discover that it is not the great thing that you have hoped for. Germany was in a great state of change. Women had been allowed to vote in Germany in 1918—before American women obtained the same right. Some women began to hold jobs although they were typically shop girls. With little educational opportunity most were not trained for more challenging work and certainly not professions. The old Prussian military culture had dominated Germany but after the disaster of losing the First World War, there were some new and different ideas circulating. This was especially so in Berlin which was one of the most modern cities in the world. If women were to vote in Germany, it would be best that they be educated and the universities had just been opened to women. Few could take advantage of the opportunity because boys and girls went to separate schools in Europe and the curricula were very different. Most girl’s education was so limited that they could not pass the entrance exams for the universities. The universities themselves reflected some of the progress and although there was by no means equality, Ida was not prepared for the rigidity and especially the authoritarian culture that existed in German corporations of the era. Intellectual discussion took a back seat to respect for supervisors and seniors. So in addition to pussyfooting around the male egos because she was female and coping with their sexist views, she was also a junior and like the new male scientists were expected to defer to the more senior men. Her view of the business world was largely based on her father’s company but the small businesses did not have the rigidity and quasi-militaristic structure of large German companies.
In addition the work was not fun in the sense that they problems the company worked on were not very interesting. Just a couple of years before Ida started at the company, British scientists had produced the first physical evidence confirming Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Einstein’s students and others were developing quantum mechanics and the entire world of physics was being turned upside down. But in her company, no one paid any attention to the new physics. After all, they just wanted to make more efficient generators, better electrical insulators, and more profitable electrical devices. And the old science was all that was needed for that. But it was a golden age of Physics progress. There had been more new knowledge in physics developed in the last 20 years than in all of human history before. But she was not involved with any of it. Ida thought that the problem might be with the company she worked for so she changed jobs and moved to Siemans-Halske. But that company was not much different. Berlin was so exiting culturally and socially. Exciting cabarets were opening in Berlin with modern music and other entertainment. Young women were even smoking and drinking alcohol then to the shock of the older generation. No one knew of the terrible health danger of smoking then, but it had been acceptable only if men drank and smoked. Only “loose” women would smoke or drink the older generation thought. But that was changing, and young women could partake of new “shocking” things. The young girls no longer had to wear corsets and were wearing dresses that showed their ankles, and even legs up over the knee, though their parents and the older generation were not at all sure of the proprietary of the new freedoms. Girls and women, in their rush to equality, began to smoke and drink like the men, and as a result over generations would start to suffer from disease and die like the men. It would be over 40 years until science realized the danger of cigarettes and the negative health effects of alcohol.
But Ida had no men who were asking her to the cabarets or even to the more formal concerts and operas. Her social life sucked.
Work hours then were much longer than the 35 to 40 hours a week that Europe and the United States have today as a base. She was there late each day and worked on Saturdays also. She spent little time anywhere else but at her job. And the men there were so formal and sexist that she didn’t consider any of them. But when she faced the reality, she had to admit that none of the male scientists were interested in her either. There were a few possible interesting executives but when she did socialize with them, they did not have a clue as to what she did or science in general.
Ida made a decision. She would follow Lisa Meitner and try and to into basic research. She applied for and was offered a job at one of the many research institutions that were developing throughout Germany. It was the best decision she ever made in her life. Her new supervisor and the Director of the Institute was a Walter Noddack, a scientist who was excited by the new physics and wanted to use the new understandings and techniques to answer very fundamental questions of physics and chemistry. One area in which he was interested was the basic set of elements of which all materials consisted.
There were tens of thousands—perhaps millions—of different physical substances that had been found. As scientists learned more, they found that all these substances were themselves composed of a set of basic elements which were combined in different ways and combinations. These elements were the basic building blocks of nature. Some elements were naturally gasses like hydrogen, helium and oxygen. Others were normally liquids like mercury. Most were solids such as carbon, sodium, gold, copper and silver. At the time, there were 88 known different elements. And new elements were being discovered every few years. Radium, barium and uranium were then relatively newly discovered elements.
One of the most exciting things in science at the time was that the elements themselves were made up of other, more fundamental particles: Protons, electrons and neutrons. The Greek word, atom, meant the smallest indivisible piece of something. Silver, iodine and all the other elements that we observe consist of millions—billions of atoms of the elements. But science had gotten inside the atom. Soon it was apparent that the elements were structured in a fascinating manner. The simplest of all the elements was a hydrogen atom. It consisted of one proton and one electron revolving around the proton. Hydrogen consisted of two protons and two electrons. Then came lithium which had three of each. Then carbon with 4. It seemed that the difference between two elements was the number of protons and electrons that made up the atoms of the element. At the time, scientists thought that the structure was like a planet revolving around a star with the electrons orbiting the protons which were held tightly together by gravity. This was not quite right as we know now that unlike planets, the electrons did not have fixed orbits but jumped around a lot. But they were right that each element had a unique number of electrons and protons. A Russian scientist, Mendeleiev organized the elements by their atomic number—the number of protons and electrons—and found that elements with similar physical and chemical properties tended to have atomic numbers that were close to each other. He and other scientists made a table of all the known elements and they realized that there were some missing elements. They were missing in the sense, that there were elements with atomic numbers for each of the integers 1, 2, 3, 4. Etc except that there were some elements that seemed to be missing. For example, Molybdenum had the atomic number of 42, and Ruthenium was number 44. But there was no 43! Others were “missing” such as 75. No one was absolutely sure that there was a different element for each atomic number, but there was such a rational structure that it seemed as if there should be. If so, there were two ways a scientist could find a new element. The scientist could find an element with a higher atomic number than those that were already known. That is how most of the newer elements had been found. The second way was to find elements which had the “missing” atomic numbers.
Walter Noddack was interested in trying to find new elements. Most scientists would love to have done so. But few have the time. That was the advantage of working at a research institution. Ida was also interested in seeking new elements. When she was interviewed for the job by Walter Noddack, she was excited to find that he too was interested in this basic kind of research and that if she got the job, she would be able to hunt for new elements and inquire into the other fundamental aspects of chemistry and physics. Walter was also happy to have another staff member who was interested in such basic research. Walter had never worked with a woman before. He didn’t personally know any female scientists. But he knew that Marie Curie was a great researcher in France. And he, like most scientists in Germany, knew of Lisa Meitner. He had read some of her papers and admired her work greatly. In his interview he asked Ida every tough question he could think of. She had been first in her class with reason. She knew more than most of the male scientists he knew and seemed to be the intellectual equal of the men already on his staff. However, he was a little nervous about the human relations. How would Ida get along with the other members of the staff? With him? Why had she not done well at the companies where she had worked. She had been honest about the fact that she did not regard those experiences as professionally successful. Walter had identified with her dissatisfactions. He too did not want to spend his scientific talent developing a better aniline dye that could permanently color cloth so the color would not fade over time. Or creating a cheaper way to wind wire to make an electromagnet. He too wanted to answer the why questions. Walter also understood her concern with the authoritarian culture of most German companies and other institutions. He himself was a fairly formal guy who was a product of the German structured militaristic culture, but he relaxed somewhat in his scientific work. He didn’t want his staff failing to tell him if they thought he had made a mistake or was about to overlook something. So he could lighten up somewhat intellectually and professionally.
When Ida was first hired, she was delighted to be part of the team looking for new elements. Specifically, Walter had decided that they should concentrate on looking for the elements with atomic numbers 43 and 75 first. There were millions of specimens to look at, find out what elements were present and if they ever found a new one that way it would be dumb luck. However, the different elements had been classified into groups according to their columns on the Periodic Table of Elements. One of the groups—so called Group VII was the one that contained manganese (atomic number 25). However, no other elements in Group VII had then been found. They believed that according to the Periodic Table, Elements 43 and 75 would be in that group. The element with the largest atomic number then known was uranium (atomic number 92). No one knew if there were any additional elements with larger atomic numbers, but there were at least two—43 and 75 that theoretically would be in that group and have some similar properties as manganese. Other groups had more than a single found elements. Group VII was a good strategic choice.
What makes the elements in the same group have similar properties is the number of electrons in the two outer shells. The electrons orbit around the protons at different energy states. We think of the electron shells as each orbiting about the protons at about the same distance. The first and innermost shell electrons are closest to the protons. The second, a little further. In general, as the atomic number increases the number of electrons and the number of different shells increase. From a chemistry point of view, the outermost shells are the most important in determining many of the properties of the elements. The electrons in the close-in shells are subject to strong gravitational force from the protons and neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. However, the electrons in the outer shells are influenced by weaker forces from the nucleus. Therefore they move further and faster and have higher levels of energy. Those electrons in the outer shells are much more likely to interact with other atoms than are the electrons from the inner shells. To a nearby atom, the outer shell electrons of any close atoms are the most important. The two outer shells of manganese have 2 and 13 electrons respectively with the 2 in the outermost shell. There are only 4 shell levels of manganese. The difference between manganese and other Group VII elements is in the number of different shells and the total number of electrons, but they will all have 2 and 13 electrons in their two outer shells. To a nearby atom of some other element, all the Group VII atoms look alike. They all will have 2 electrons in the outermost shell and 13 in the next shell. So when another atom may combine with a Group VII element, the physical properties will be similar to what would happen if the atom were to combine with a manganese atom. So, Walter, Ida and an associate decided to first look at minerals that contained manganese to see if they also might contain elements 43 and 75.
Manganese is a type of metal that was extracted from mineral ore just like iron or copper. To obtain some of the pure metal, the ore was crushed and treated in various ways to separate out each of the different elements. An ore that was rich in iron might have a little copper also or silver or manganese. Walter Noddack’s team decided that they would start with ore that was known to be rich in manganese. It seemed reasonable that whatever geological or cosmic forces had combined to produce or preserve manganese, would might also have done so for the other elements of Group VII. So they began to carefully examine manganese ores to see if they could find a new substance that might share some of the properties of manganese but would be different—specifically in its atomic number, and hopefully might be number 43 or 75 which would be new elements. At that time . Walter Noddack added Ida to his small team that included himself and an expert at the relatively new science of X-rays which had become a very important scientific tool for analyzing substances. There was a technique that was being developed called X-ray diffraction scattering which is a fancy term for taking a special kind of X-ray picture of a mineral and determining the atomic numbers of whatever elements were there.
The work was very tedious. Thousands of samples of different ores and minerals were carefully examined. An X-ray of one tiny sample of the mineral might not show an element, but a fraction of an inch away it might be there. After several year of examining materials they found an X-ray picture that looked like it might be element 75. So they looked at different parts of that sample. Another X-ray looking like element 75 could not be found. But a few hundred tries later, Ida told Walter that she and her associate thought that they had another element 75 X-ray. The good news was that there seemed to be some element 75 atoms. The bad news was that there was not enough to collect into a sample that they could see. It should have been a transitional metal like manganese, but they could not tell or test it. Did it conduct electricity? Would it be attracted by a magnet? Could it oxidize (rust)? How would acid affect it? They could not tell because they could not get enough to test. Soon they were able to get X-ray evidence of atoms of element 75 in two different minerals that were known and used to obtain other elements. One was a mineral called “Colombite” which had the technical term of “Iron Manganese Magnesium Niobium Tantalum Oxide.” The other was Platinum ore. The key was the Manganese. Their using Manganese minerals had been a good strategy.
In 1925, Ida, Walter, and their associate published their findings and named the new element “Rhenium” after the Rhine River in Germany. The didn’t receive a lot of credit right away. Their process was a hard one to replicate by others and they could not produce any samples of the element they claimed to have discovered. So they set about trying to find a way of getting enough atoms of Rhenium together to run tests on the sample and describe the element and show it to doubters. It took three years for them to do it, but in 1928, they had extracted one gram of Rhenium. They found two other minerals in which tiny amounts could be found: gadolinite and molybdenite. A single gram was not very much. About three-tenths of an ounce. To obtain that single gram however, Ida and the team had to go through 1455 pounds of mineral ore. The Rhenium in the ores was only a tiny fraction of the ore. It had taken three years but they finally had enough to run tests and convince the skeptics. They had discovered a new element.
Today we know why it took so long for them to get just a gram of Rhenium together. Rhenium is one of the rarest elements on the Earth’s crust. Rhenium is only .001 ppm on the Earth. That is one 1000th of a part of Rhenium for every million parts of other stuff. That means that for ever 1000 million pounds of other stuff on earth, there is only 1 pound of Rhenium. This is much more rare than Gold. As a result Rhenium has never had a big role in industry. It was just too expensive to find. Today, in the entire world the annual production of Rhenium is only 3500 tons. Almost all of it is used in the manufacture of scientific instruments. It is one of the densest of the elements—more so than lead for example. It is a great conductor of electricity and becomes superconductive at temperatures not as cold as other superconductive elements. It’s melting point is very high – almost 4000 degrees Fahrenheit. Only tungsten and carbon have higher melting temperatures.
But in 1928, the cost to obtain a single gram for use by scientists was about $10,000 and in today’s money, the cost would be millions. It was only used by scientists to study.
The work of the team had been very intense for a number of years. At times they were hopeful and positive. Then the lack of results became a downer. Then they went though the ups and downs of finding some X-Rays but not being able to find many or accumulate much of the substance they thought they had found. Then they published and became 3 of the very few scientists who ever discovered an element. But many did not believe them and the admiration and prestige they had hoped for was slow in coming. And finally, after grueling work, the had the physical evidence and could celebrate their triumph.
The emotional and intellectual roller coaster had a profound effect on both Walter and Ida. They spent most of their waking hours working together. They shared the frustrations, anxieties, doubts, work, and finally a triumph. They became very close both intellectually and emotionally. Soon they realized that they were in love. Walter had assumed that he would marry a woman like the wives of his scientific colleagues and friends—a nice woman from good family who would be a good mother and housewife. But she would not be very well educated and would never understand his work. Scientist wives could never appreciate their husband’s successes or his failures. They could never be of help in their husband’s work. They could not correct him if he was about to make an error. They could not improve in his ideas. They could not provide ideas that he could then develop. But here Walter Noddack was, with a companion who could do all of that. It was exhiliterating and totally unexpected. Ida for her part had almost resigned herself to not marrying—like Lisa Meitner seemed to have done. However, soon the bond between her and Walter had formed at many levels. When he asked her to marry him, she was afraid he would not for she never imagined or expected that she could have such a great relationship with a man. The fact that Walter was clearly the boss, eliminated what might have been competition between them. The fact that they had a small team of just three helped a great deal. If he made a mistake and Ida pointed it out there was not one but Berg who could think less of Walter, but Berg was in awe of Walter and even Ida. He was an expert at the new science of X-Ray analysis but his function was more of a technician. Walter and Ida did the theoretical work and gave him the samples to measure. Besides, Ida did most of the scut work of going through the hundreds of pounds of minerals. There were more needles in haystacks than there were atoms of Rhenium in their samples. Each member of the team really appreciated the other. Ida had been ecstatically happy in her work.
Ida and her colleagues were not aware of any elements with greater atomic numbers than 92—the number of uranium. However, there were many more by 2009. And there was yet another element of Group VII. It is Bohrium with atomic number of 107. And it too had the two outer shells of 2 and 13 electrons. It was first created in 1976. It was not “found”. It was created artificially in a laboratory. After it was created and studied, it became clear why it was and will never likely be found. Bohrium is unstable—very radioactive. And its “half life” is only about 1 minute. A few seconds from when it is created, it loses its radioactivity and transforms to a lower element. So if an atom of Bohrium were ever created naturally, its existence would be so short lived that it is unlikely that a scientist would ever find it at that exact moment. It is a good thing that Bohrium is not stable and found in nature because even a modest number of atoms of Bohrium would be a serious radiation hazard and destroy all nearby life. It is interesting to speculate about Bohrium elsewhere in the universe. It would not be compatible with life as we know it, but there are plenty of cosmic bodies that do not contain life and a star might be generating Bohrium at a rapid rate. Alternatively, it may only exist if it is artificially created by man or some other cosmic lifeform.
In 1926 Ida married Walter. She was 30 years old, a typical age for a professional woman to marry today, but much later than most women married at the time in Europe. But then most women—even the few educated ones—had little else to do but get married. Ida was caught up in the thrilling march of science that characterized the 1920s. She was finding new elements and laying the foundation for atomic energy. This she did ironically in her article showing Fermi’s error. She wrote:
“It is conceivable that the nucleus breaks up into several large fragments, which would of course be isotopes of known elements but would not be neighbors of the irradiated element.”
By “neighbors” she meant isotopes. She speculated that it might be possible that the nucleus of an irradiated (bombarded by particles) atom to break up into entirely new elements, unrelated to the original bombarded element. And although no one knew it at the time, that is exactly what takes place in a nuclear fusion reaction. The original element is transformed into other elements and the combined mass of the new elements might be lighter than the original mass. The difference in mass would be explained by Einstein’s E = Mc2. The missing mass would be transformed into energy, and this would produce an atomic pile or reactor—the key to nuclear energy.
Noddack had not explained the process, or even speculated or analyzed why such a phenomenon might occur. She did not proved anything. She did contribute something very important in science—she had an idea, a new idea. It was something that others could consider—to reject or prove. But by offering what she thought was a possibility, she could stimulate the thinking of others, and indeed did so for one of the most important ideas in the history of science. And as you will see in the next chapter, another female scientist would discover and prove that the first nuclear reaction in human history and taken place, and she was helped by having read and remembering Ida Noddack’s idea.
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