Ida Tacke Noddack
If Ida Tacke Noddack's research were not brushed aside in 1934, Nazi Germany would have easily won World War II.
Who was Ida Tacke Noddack?
Ida Tacke Noddack is known for two important contributions to science. The confluence of her two contributions, along with the state of society at the time, caused her research to be largely ignored and consequently changed the course of world history.
Her first contribution occurred in 1925, in which she participated in a team that discovered element number 75, known as rhenium. This claim was accepted by the scientific community; however, Ida also claimed discovery at the same time of element 43, which she and her team called masurium. This was very widely disputed at the time, and her reputation was called into question.
Thus, her second major discovery (the one that would impact world history) was her analysis of the work of Enrico Fermi in 1934, in which she postulated that he had actually split a uranium atom, rather than building a larger atom that Fermi himself had believed. She was correct in her research, and had this been validated in 1934, Germany could have easily developed a nuclear bomb in the 1930s, before the Manhattan Project had hardly been conceived.
A Brief Biography
Ida Eva Tacke was born in 1896 in the small village of Lackhausen, Germany. She studied chemistry at Technische Hochschule in Berlin, where she received her diploma in 1919, and her doctorate in 1921. Upon receiving her doctorate, she went into private industry from 1921 to 1925, working at Allgemeine Electrical Works and Siemans-Halske.
In 1925, she returned to public research, going to work at the Imperial Physico-Technical Research Office. Her first published paper in this position was a bombshell. She, with her future husband Walter Noddack and Otto Berg, discovered rhenium, which was the last remaining naturally occuring element that had not yet been discovered.
However, this project would have a downside as well. Amid all the attention the group received about the discovery of rhenium (which was reproducible), her group also claimed that they had discovered element 43, which they called masurium. The results from this second discovery, however, were not reproducible, so even though her group had made a strong discovery, her credibility was cast into doubt. (For more details on masurium, see below).
This would come back to haunt her greatly in 1934, when Enrico Fermi's claim of discovery of large elements (higher in atomic number than uranium) was published. After investigating this herself, she published a paper arguing that what Fermi had in fact done was split a uranium atom, the process known now as fission and the core of a nuclear bomb. Her work was ignored until 1940, when the United States was already in the process of building a nuclear bomb.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Ida and Walter Noddack never joined the Nazi Party, but never actively opposed them, either. However, they were forced to move about Europe due to the ebbs and flows of the war. Interestingly enough, Walter Noddack was investigated for war crimes after the war and was acquitted; however, during a search of his laboratory, Ida's paperwork on large elements and fission disappeared.
After the war, the couple moved to Turkey until 1956, then moved back to Germany, where Ida worked at the State Research Institute for Geochemistry, where she worked until her retirement in 1968. She passed away in 1979.
What was wrong with masurium?
The primary problem with Ida's "discovery" of masurium was her method of discovery. She utilized spectroscopy and built upon the research of Henry Moseley, who died prematurely in World War I. His research argued that there was a direct relationship between the frequency of emitted X-rays and the atomic number of an element. In fact, the ore that her team used in their research did contain a small amount of element 43; however, their results overestimated the amount of element 43 that they had discovered by several orders of magnitude. In essence, their technique was able to detect the presence of the element, but gave no clue as to the amount; by overstating the research, it was deemed to be flawed.
Why were Tacke's discoveries ignored?
An immediate answer is sexism. Outside of Marie Curie, science at the time was very much a proverbial old boy's club, where women were looked down upon. However, there were other contributing factors: the fact that she used techniques that were not widely established and the fact that she never held a true leadership position contributed to the situation.
Ida Tacke Noddack is best remembered as a female pioneer in chemistry and physics, the discoverer of rhemium, and an interesting footnote to history.