You’ve probably seen the Periodic Table of Elements, but the table you learned about in school looks different from the one this week’s WiSE Wednesday honoree, Ida Noddack, was introduced to. Early versions of the Periodic Table included numerous holes where undiscovered elements were predicted to exist, and Ida set out to fill them. Born Ida Tacke in Germany in 1896, she earned a PhD from the Technical University of Berlin in 1921. She married fellow chemist Walter Noddack in 1926, and the two worked as a close team, moving together to various institutions as wartime necessitated. Despite doing the same level of work as her husband, Ida was given “unpaid appointments” everywhere but the University of Strasbourg.
In 1925, Ida and Walter published a paper claiming to have discovered 2 of the Periodic Table’s missing elements- 43 (which they named masurium) and 75 (which they named rhenium). Their discovery of rhenium was confirmed, but they were unable to isolate element 43 so are generally not given credit for its discovery (in 1937 it was artificially produced and isolated by Emilio Segré and Carlo Perrier and named technetium).
In 1934, Enrico Fermi published results of neutron bombardment experiments he argued demonstrated the production of transuranic elements (elements heavier than uranium that were produced by uranium molecules absorbing neutrons in nuclear fusion). In a paper “On Element 93,” Ida pointed out flaws in Fermi’s analysis and suggested that the data could instead be explained by the uranium splitting into smaller particles. This was the first known suggestion of nuclear fission, but the tools were not available to validate her theory, and her idea was largely ignored until 1938, when Otto Han and Fritz Strassman found experimental proof of nuclear fission. The process was then explained theoretically by Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch in 1939.
Her gender, unconventional theories, and inability to confirm her discover of element 43 prevented Ida from getting the recognition and respect she deserved from the scientific community. Ida was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 3 times, but never won the award, and she passed away in 1978. Next time you see a Periodic Table, look for rhenium and think of Ida Noddack!