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Seminars "Work in progress", curs 2013-2014

March 7, 2014
Friday, 12:00 CEHIC-UAB

cehic 04/03/2014

Auer Licht
Auer Licht

Gas Mantles, Rare Earths, and German Radium: Reassessing the Rise of Nuclear Physics in Weimar

Xavier Roqué, CEHIC UAB

Through  the Weimar Republic (1918–1933), the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (1878–1968) and the German chemist Otto Hahn (1879–1968)  built up the radioactive department of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry (KWIC) in Berlin. Eventually commanding most of the institute’s space and budget, Meitner and Hahn's laboratory became Germany’s leading centre for radioactive research, playing a key role in the rise of the nuclear sciences in the interwar years. However, not as much attention has been paid to the KWIC as to the other major nodes in the international radioactive network, the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, the Institut Curie in Paris, and the Institut für Radiumforschung in Vienna. In the standard, bomb-driven account of the development of nuclear physics, the KWIC is discussed in connection with work on the transuranium elements between 1934–1938, reaching a climax with the discovery of nuclear fission; while new, challenging historiographies focussing on research practices have largely left the KWIC aside.

In this paper I seek to reassess the role the KWIC in the rise of nuclear physics by taking into account the financial and material constraints of the laboratory, in particular its dependence on the German chemical industry and its stock of radioactive substances. Meitner explicitly deemed nuclear constitution a research priority from the early 1920s on, yet the KWIC appears to have been under-stocked for an elite radioactive centre, having to make do with 1/10 the amount of radium available in Cambridge or Paris. How did the radioactivists at the KWIC cope with this situation? And how did the institute’s reliance on major gas lighting companies and rare earth producers affect its research program?

Building on extant archives in Berlin and Cambridge, I will discuss the opportunities and constraints shaping nuclear research in Berlin through the Weimar years. I will also argue that Lise Meitner's biography should be substantially revised.