abstract-van_tiggelen – Niels Bohr Archive

Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and Annette Lykknes, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
Ida Noddack and the fission proposal: the actor’s perspective

The establishment of Bohr's atomic model changed the way the Periodic Table of Elements was used, in particular when it comes to the search and the discovery of  missing elements, which is the context within which the discovery of fission took place. When in 1934 Ida Noddack suggested the possibility that the nucleus might break up into several large fragments during nuclear reactions, she was commenting Enrico Fermi’s claim of having produced element 93 by bombarding uranium with slow neutrons. Her criticism and suggestion however went unnoticed.

The case only resurfaced in history of science several decades later and the fact that Ida Noddack’s proposal was ignored has been interpreted in a wide variety of frameworks: gender, politics, disciplinary boundaries between chemistry and physics, authority loss, prematurity in scientific discovery etc. Some of these interpretations have failed to provide the context and the expertise on which Ida Noddack relied when criticizing the way new elements were allegedly produced, yielding sometimes anachronistic claims she never made herself. In this paper we draw on previously unused archival material to provide the actors’ perspective. Among others, we will contrast the views of Meitner and Noddack on matter, the periodic table, and the manufacture of missing elements.