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Women in Science: Physics

What is Physics?

Physics is perhaps the natural science that has the reputation for being the most difficult. However, it's not always so cut and dry. Physics covers a number of specialties and studies. Some of these include: 
Applied and interdisciplinary physics, Atomic physics, Computational physics, Experimental physics, Particle physics, Plasma physics, Quantum Mechanics, Theoretical physics, and Thermodynamics.

To learn more about women in physics, you can browse our catalog, or check out the books listed below!

LHL Lectures: Dr. Naoko Kurahashi Neilson

Dr. Naoko Kurahashi Neilson is an assistant professor of physics at Drexel University, where her research interest is in experimental neutrino astroparticle physics. She obtained her Ph.D. by “listening” for very high energy neutrinos that originated from outside our galaxy in the ocean in the Bahamas. She decided that she had had enough of tropical sun, and joined the IceCube experiment, a neutrino observatory operating at the geographical South Pole. There, she is interested in resolving galactic and extragalactic astrophysical sources that emit neutrinos. Her current research focus is to analyze data from the completed IceCube detector to resolve sources spatially, particularly in the southern sky. She has a B.A. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in physics/applied physics from Stanford University.

Dr. Shirley Jackson

Born: August 5, 1946

Shirley Ann Jackson was born in Washington DC, developing a passion for science at a young age. After graduating valedictorian of her high school, she became one of the first African-American students to be accepted into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving her Bachelors in 1968, and her PhD, specializing in Theoretical Solid State physics, in 1973, becoming the first African-American woman to earn a PhD from MIT.

During her undergraduate years (1934-68), she became a scholar at the Martin Marietta Aircraft Corporation. After receiving her PhD, she accepted a position as Research Associate in Theoretical Physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which she held from 1973-74, and then a Visiting Science Associate position at the European Organization for Nuclear Research the following two years (1974-75).

In 1976, she was appointed as Professor of Physics at Rutgers University in New jersey, while also serving on the Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in theoretical physics (1976-1978) and in their Scattering and Low Energy Physics Research Laboratory (1978). Dr Jackson conducted research in theoretical, solid state, quantum, and optical physics at Bell Laboratories from 1976-1991. Through her work and research, she helped develop the technology behind the portable fax, touch tone phone, fiber optics, solar cells, and the tech behind caller ID and call waiting.

Dr. Jackson’s life has been outstanding in many aspects, whether it was becoming the first African-American woman to receive a PhD from MIT, becoming a physics professor at Rutgers University, serving on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as Chairman, holding 21 honorary doctorates, or her numerous awards and other prestigious positions. Currently, she is the eighth president of the oldest polytechnic school in the US: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 
If you want to learn more about Dr. Shirley Jackson, look at these books!

Lise Meitner

Born: November 7, 1878
Died: October 27, 1968

The third of eight children in a Viennese-Jewish family, Lise showed a knack for mathematics at an early age. Her father insisted that his daughters receive the same education as his sons, so Lise was privately tutored, and at age 23 she became the first woman to be admitted to the University of Vienna’s physics lectures & laboratories. She became the second woman to receive her PhD in physics from the university, and it was there that she met Max Planck, the father of quantum theory and her future mentor, who invited Lise to Berlin to continue post-doctoral research. Despite her qualifications and Planck’s invitation, from 1907-1912 she worked as an unpaid research scientist and wasn’t allowed access into the laboratories at the Berlin Institute of Chemistry. However, it was during these years that she met a several young scientists that would later influence and become sounding boards for each other’s works: Albert Einstein, Paul Ehrenfest, and her future research partner of thirty years, Otto Hahn. For almost seven years, Lise worked as Planck’s Physics Department assistant, publishing articles on newly-discovered elements and their properties in conjunction with Otto Hahn and many other scientists. In 1912, Lise & Otto moved to the new Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute (KWI) in Berlin-Dahlem. Although she worked without a salary as Hahn’s “guest” in the Radiochemistry department, it was well known that she and Otto were equal contemporaries in their research. Finally, in 1913, after announcing that she would be following an offer to become an associate professor in Prague, KWI offered her a permanent position. 

World War I temporarily interrupted the research of Meitner-Hahn, with Lise serving as an x-ray nurse on the Austrian front from 1915-1917. However at the urging of Hahn and her contemporaries at KWI, she returned to her research in Berlin, where both she and Hahn received additional responsibilities: Hahn was named the Administrative Director for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, and Meitner was given the supervision of the Physics Section, a position she held for twenty years until the Third Reich forced her to flee. The team gained prestige in the scientific community in Europe and around the world, nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ten consecutive years (1924-1934), and again two years later in 1936, despite the worrying Nazi political climate. Lise became an official Lecturer at the university in 1922, then the acting director of the Institute of Chemistry in 1930. Hitler’s rise to power in April of 1933 brought a degree that stripped all Jewish academics of their degrees, including several of her close friends & family members.. By this time, her friend & fellow scientist Albert Einstein was already out of the Nazi’s clutches, and was able to speak out against the Reich publically. Meitner, although her family wasn’t practicing Judaism, and despite being baptized as an Evangelical herself, was still included in the degree due to her heritage. Letters she wrote to colleagues spoke of the atrocities in detail, although thanks to her Austrian citizenship, she was able to keep her paid position at KWI until the Anschluss in 1938, when she was forced to flee to the Netherlands, then onto Copenhagen and Sweden in an escape route that had been engineered by physicist Neils Bohr and members of the international physics community.

Once settled in Stockholm, she continued her research with Hahn via letter, convincing him and their lab assistant to continue their work in Berlin, while she battled sexism and prejudice that repeatedly denied her access to laboratories and working space. Through their correspondence, she and Hahn discovered barium, after Otto observed a “bursting” occurring in uranium. Lise & her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, also a physicist, realized that this wasn’t a burst, but a split: they had discovered nuclear fission in uranium. Between January and March of 1939, she wrote a series of articles set to be published in Nature, outlining their discovery. Niels Bohr, with whom Lise had developed a working relationship with, heard of their news via Frisch, and was able to confirm their discovery, publishing a paper at Princeton that was based on Meitner’s published research and her insight. Bohr’s paper gained popularity across America, in 1939, along with the confirmation of fission before Meitner & Frisch’s paper was able to be circulated by Nature. However, Bohr continued tirelessly to give Lise the prominence of the discovery in the physics community.

Unfortunately, Hahn took the credit and the prize, for their discovery, being awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, she was recognized in America for her scientific accomplishments, and went on to be awarded numerous honorary doctorates in both the US and Europe, as well as the Enrico Fermi Prize, Atomic Energy Commission in 1966. Ironically, Lise Meitner was one of the few scientists who did not work directly with governments or weapons research during World War II, although her discovery of nuclear fission was what the atomic bomb was built upon. She continued to teach throughout her life, spending her last two decades traveling and encouraging women to go into the sciences.


If you want to learn more about Lise Meitner and her contributions to physics, check out these books!