Women in Physics

I believe getting women into physics is really important and so I am starting my blog with a short overview of three inspiring women who made great contributions to the study of physics.

Marie Curie
the first woman to win a Nobel prize! She discovered two new elements, Polonium and Radium. Curie had lumps of a fairly common mineral called pitchblend which she knew was radioactive (Radioactivity refers to particles which are emitted from nuclei due to nuclear instability), however there were no traces of the only known radioactive element uranium in it and so realised a new element must be hidden in the mineral. In order to find the new elements she had to grind the pitchblend and extract them. Radium and Polonium are extremely radioactive and it was only because she was dealing with such tiny amount that Curie lived to as long as 67, when it was eventually the cause of her death.

Maria Goeppert Mayer was a theoretical physicist who was a Nobel laureate for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus. The nuclear shell model describes the structure of the nucleus in terms of energy levels. In the nuclear shell model, each nucleon moves in a central potential well created by other nucleons, just as the electrons orbit a potential well created by the nucleus in the atomic shell model. The orbits form a series of shells of increasing energy. Nuclei with completely filled outer shells are most stable. 

Lise Meitner
most notably contributed to the understanding of nuclear fission. She was one of the first to articulate a theory of how the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts. Meitner, along with scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, were firing neutrons into heavy Uranium nuclei and always seemed to end up with something lighter. Meitner discovered that the extra neutron was not sticking to the uranium but causing it to split into two lighter nuclei (Barium and Krypton). It was soon realised that this process had the potential to produce large amounts of energy. Nuclear fission was then used as a source for nuclear power and, regrettably for her, led to the first atomic bomb.

This is just a very brief description of some of the amazing things these female physicists have achieved in a time when it was much harder for women to become established.


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