How it started and how it’s going now

In the 21st century we admit that men and women are working hand-in-hand but still there remains prejudice and bigotry. There have been groundbreaking discoveries transpired in the field of science in the past 100 years. As modern physics manifested, the world noticed ample changes among which Nuclear and Radiation science contributed a large share. In this women's history month if we look back, we get to scrutinize that it was women who first dedicated in this field. But if we compare it to present days we will conclude that only 22.4% women work in the nuclear sector according to the IAEA.

Madam Marie Curie is the leading name in the history of Nuclear Science. In the World Women Day we recall her contribution in the advancement of nuclear science. She advanced the fundamental knowledge in the nuclear field and laid the foundation of modern technologies such as X-ray machine at present.

She was the first woman ever to win a Nobel Prize and at the same time the first human in the history to claim the Nobel Prize twice in two different fields (Physics and Chemistry). We are talking about a time when woman would barely finish their school. Living in such an era, Manya or Maria Sklodowska overcame all the barriers and she continued her impulsion towards education. She was the first female to enroll at Sorbonne and completed her master's degree in Physics and Mathematics in 1894. Not only was her gender a big barrier but her family was on the verge of financial crisis and therefore during her educational years she would survive on Bread and Tea. Situations developed as she shared her Steel and Magnetic Lab with Pierre Curie and the couple became a formidable group who in the following year got married. Marie's interest sparked when in 1896 Henri Becquerel discovered radiation from Uranium. Her inquisitiveness towards this new phenomena led her to the discovery of Radium and Polonium from pitchblende. What we call 'radioactivity' today was termed by this radiant woman. In 1914 during WW1, Marie, the mother of two daughters devoted herself to humanity by helping the community with portable X-ray machines renamed as 'Little Curies'.

Marie Curie aforesaid - "One never notices what has been done, one can only see what remains to be done"

The mother of radioactivity died on July 4, 1934 due to plastic anemia caused by radiation exposure. When she died people had not still perceived the consequence of radiation, so it was a mystery back then. After the discovery of effects of exposure, her body was sealed with Lead due to high contamination.

Dr. Irene Joliot-Curie, another female nuclear physicist is the daughter of Marie. Like mother like daughter, Irene received Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with her husband Frederic Joliot Curie in 1935. Following her mother's footstep, she became a vigorous personnel in the Society of Science. She was one of the first three women to become the member of French Government. In 1945 the new 'French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA)' created by the provisional Government of the French Republic, made her the Commissioner. An acute Leukemia caused her death in 1956.

Lise Meitner: At present we all know about Nuclear power and the consequence of Fission reaction. Well, if nobody understand then simply it is the disintegration of a heavy atom into two light atoms. As a result huge amount of energy gets produced and the world is using this energy now to generate electricity. Fission has also caused the world destructions like Hiroshima and Nagasaki which is merely known as Nuclear Proliferation. Fission was discovered in December 1938 and it was during the start of WW2 and has changed the perceptibility since then.

We all may have studied that Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had observed Fission. But they were apparently chemists so they could not precisely describe the phenomena in terms of Physics. It was actually Lise Meitner behind the name "Fission" and only a couple of people know about her contribution. Lise Meitner lived most of her life in the laboratories and her devotion towards Physics led her to tremendous discoveries. One of her colleagues once asked her why she did not get married and her reply was "I didn't find the time for that". Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner's friendship started when they initiated their research on Radioactivity at Kaiser Wilhelm Society. During the early days in the institute it was very tormenting for her as the head of the Society Emil Fischer was not in welcoming in behavior. It was said that he would threaten to burn women hair if they come in the laboratory. So it was quite a tough situation for her to continue her research further. Otto Hahn comforted her in these circumstances by cooperating her in research in the basement of the institute. Gradually Fischer got impressed by her work and appointed her as Scientific Associate.

Like Marie, Lise was the only female researcher in the laboratory. In the early 1938, when Nazi Government projected acts against Jews, it became difficult for her to stay there. Niels Bohr invited her to Sweden and she secretly moved to there to get rid of upcoming aversions. Otto Hahn was still secretly in touch with her. In that very year Hahn was carrying an experiment to introduce new element after Uranium by bombarding with newly discovered neutron. What he found had characteristics similar to Barium, a lighter element and he could not find any explanations for that. He acquainted Lise about the incident and asked for her opinion. Lise with her nephew Otto Frisch elucidated the characteristics of Fission and it was them who actually related Einstein's E= mc2 theory in this process. She explained that during Fission there remains a mass change and it can be converted into energy. But as she was Jew and also a woman her name was not included in the discovery of Fission and it lasted almost for 6 years. Being aware of the devastation of Fission she left the Manhattan Project and insisted others to shut the program. In her gravestone it is written - "A physicist who never lost her humanity".

Margaret Melhase is another name in the field of nuclear science. She was in the team of Dr. Glenn T Seaborg, producing a new element 'Plutonium' in Berkley which is the source of atom bomb. Due to war secrecy her name was repressed. Another egregious case is of Darleane Christian Hoffman who is a nuclear chemist and was among the researchers who identified the element Seaborgium. She has told how she fought against gender discrimination for years. Instead of her talent in nuclear material she could not join her research team who discovered lately Einsteinium and Fermium.

Hence, looking at the history of contribution of women in nuclear science it is noticed that obstacles did not let them hang back instead it inspired them to look for more. In contrast today's survey says women are sharing less in powerplants or researches related to nuclear field. It can be a reason that radiation effects woman tissues greater times than it does to men. But it is a melancholy that the field that got thrived by women, is still now under presenting women in technical and leadership positions in this sector. IAEA has initiated a program known as WINSI to inspire young women to take jobs in this field. It is also encouraging students to join Nuclear Engineering by providing scholarships like 'IAEA Marie Sklodowska Curie Fellowship Programme'. As nuclear is becoming the mine day by day, it is expected that more women will come here and will hold the sector like how it started.

Anindita Adri, student of Nuclear Engineering Department, University of Dhaka, e-mail:

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