Female physicists aren’t represented in the media – and this lack of representation hurts the physics field
Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated movie “Oppenheimer,” set for release July 21, 2023, depicts J. Robert Oppenheimer and his role in the development of the atomic bomb. But while the Manhattan Project wouldn’t have been possible without the work of many accomplished female scientists, the only women seen in the movie’s trailer are either hanging laundry, crying or cheering the men on.
The Manhattan Project would not have been possible without the work of physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission. Meitner used Einstein’s E=MC² to calculate how much energy would be released by splitting uranium atoms, and it was that development that would prompt Einstein to sign a letter urging President Franklin Roosevelt to begin the United States’ atomic research program.
Einstein called Meitner the “Madame Curie of Germany” and was one of a pantheon of physicists, from Max Planck to Niels Bohr, who nominated Meitner for a Nobel Prize 48 times during her lifetime.
Meitner never won. Instead, the prize for fission went to Otto Hahn, her male lab partner of 30 years in Berlin. Hahn received the news of his nomination under house arrest in England, where he and other German scientists were being held to determine how far the Third Reich had advanced with its atomic program.
Of Jewish descent, Meitner had been forced to flee the Nazis in 1938 and refused to use this scientific discovery to develop a bomb. Rather, she spent the rest of her life working to promote nuclear disarmament and advocating for the responsible use of nuclear energy.
Meitner was not the only woman who made a significant contribution during this time. But the lack of physics role models like Meitner in popular media leads to real-life consequences. Meitner doesn’t appear as a character in the film, as she was not part of the Manhattan Project, but we hope the script alludes to her groundbreaking work.