The first mind to split the atom could have changed world history

How would World War II have gone if the idea for the atom bomb had come five years earlier? It sounds like alternate history, but almost happened, thanks to Ida Noddack - the German chemist who first described nuclear fission.

Otto Hahn was the man who won 1944 Nobel Prize for his discovery of the fission of uranium and thorium. The man first published his discovery in 1939, and spent the next few years further investigating and proving his theory. He needed all the proof he could get. The word 'atom' comes from the Greek word for 'indivisible'. Splitting them was a very strange concept.

Except it wasn't. It was a five-year-old concept first mentioned by a German chemist. That chemist, Ida Tacke Noddack could have altered world history - the widespread acceptance of atomic fission and subsequent energy release could have left several countries well on their way to developing nuclear bombs by the time World War II started - but the idea was ignored. Along with several other ideas. Noddack was nominated for the Nobel Prize three times, but never won.

Ida Tacke Noddack was born Ida Tacke in Germany in 1896. She got a doctorate in 1919, and subsequently became the first professional German female chemist. She worked with her husband, trying to isolate the extremely rare elements 43 and 75. To their surprise, they met with (relatively) early success, and published a paper announcing that they had isolated both elements in 1925. Element 75, they named Rhenium. The more volatile element 43, they named Masurium. Their happiness was shortlived. Although the results for Rhenium were confirmed, but Masurium was a problem child. All forms of element 43 are radioactive and unstable. No one could duplicate their results, and so even their success cast doubt on their reputation. The official discovery of the element 43 by Carlo Perrier and Emilio Segrè was confirmed in 1936. It was named Technetium.

The Noddacks continued their work, both together and separately. They still had a claim to history. Ida was nominated by her peers for a Nobel Prize in 1933, and both Noddacks were nominated in 1935 and 1937, but the award was never given to them. The sting of rejection is understandable, but the bitterest pill was still to come. In 1934, living science legend Enrico Fermi published a paper on transuranic elements, elements with higher atomic numbers than Uranium. He bombarded Uranium with neutrons, and said that he was coming up with larger elements by turning neutrons in the atomic nuclei into protons.

The first mind to split the atom could have changed world historyS

Ida Noddack published a paper in 1934, "On Element 93", in which she disagreed with Fermi's conclusions. In this paper she wrote the line, "it is conceivable that when heavy nuclei are bombarded by neutrons, the nuclei in question might break up into a number of pieces, which would no doubt be isotopes of known elements but not neighbors of the irradiated elements."

Apparently, it was not that conceivable. In fact, physicists called the idea 'absurd.' Noddack's idea was never followed up. Later Otto Hahn and his colleague Lise Meitner independently came up with the idea of fission while checking Fermi's conclusions, along with a developed theory and experimental proof.

Although Noddack's fame was overshadowed by Hahn, it is only due to her dogged determination that she has any fame at all. As early as 1939, she wrote to journals citing her 'On Element 93' paper. The newly successful Hahn was asked for a response to Noddack's papers and letters, but declined to give any. Noddack continued sending journals her paper, and her claim on the chain of discovery that lead to practical fission, into the 1970s. At that point her reputation had been called into question for another reason. Many scientists fled, or were forced to flee, Germany in the late 1930s. Noddack and her husband not only stayed, but her husband was given a position at the University of Strasbourg. The Noddacks were not members of the Nazi party, and Ida's husband was cleared of any wrongdoing during the war, but the fact that they stayed in those positions showed that they did not oppose the regime.

Noddack has no claim on the actual Nobel prize, since her idea was not supported by correct theoretical or experimental work, but she does go down in history as the first person to record the idea of fission. It was bad luck for her, though arguably good luck for the world, that her paper was dismissed so universally at the time.

The dismissal of fission was mainly due to Noddack's mistaken identification of element 43 in 1925. In 1998 it was shown that her luck may have been even worse than previously thought. Research chemist John T Armstrong took a look at the experiment that the Noddacks did to isolate element 43. According to his calculations, the Noddacks may have been able to detect the element after all, and it was the subsequent experimental attempts at confirmation that were bungled. What a difference that could have made.

Via Nobel Prize.org, St. Thomas U, IAEA, Chem Team, Book Rags,Hypatia Maze and Physics.org.