The Unsung Suffragist Who Fought for Women to Keep Their Maiden Names


An undated photo of abolitionist and women’s rights activist Lucy Stone
Corbis—Getty Images

During Women’s History Month the work of pioneering women’s rights activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony will surely be debated and discussed in classrooms and newsrooms around the United States. But Stanton and Anthony didn’t work alone. They were part of what has been called the “triumvirate” of 19th century suffragists, though the third woman in that trio was someone who is much less talked-about today than the others.

Her name was Lucy Stone. In fact, Anthony said it was Stone who inspired her to take up the cause of suffrage in the first place. And ironically, Lucy Stone’s influence is seen in the everyday lives of many American women today — though they might not know it.

Stanton once described Stone as “the first woman in the nation to protest against the marriage laws at the altar, and to manifest sufficient self respect to keep her own name, to represent her individual existence through life.” Stone made that decision more than a century ago, when she wed Henry Blackwell in 1855, but her crusade had started years earlier.

Read entire article at Time

(For the source of this, and other interesting historical articles, please visit: https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171471)





The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn’t Tell You

Pocahontas Went On Tour As A C is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You

The real Pocahontas was nothing like the Pocahontas depicted in Disney’s 1995 animated classic. There are a multitude of ways that Disney lies about, or at the very least exaggerates, the life of Pocahontas, but they’re not the only culprits when it comes to spreading falsehoods about the Native American princess (who wasn’t actually a princess, by the way). The history of Pocahontas has been riddled with dramatizations, oversimplifications, and outright lies from the very beginning – and all of that dishonesty only adds to the tragedy that is Pocahontas’s true life story.

The truth about Pocahontas is infinitely sadder than the bright and cheery, wind-color-painting version presented in popular culture. Her interactions with English settlers were far less whimsical and musical than Disney would have you believe; it was instead the sort of violent and prejudiced interaction that we’ve come to expect from that era. Pocahontas herself is still an inspiring and important historical figure, but her actual life story is not a feel-good tale about the common threads between people of different backgrounds. Instead, it’s the exact opposite.

Pocahontas Was Kidnapped And Held For Ransom By The English

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Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas’s most significant interaction with the English was a lot less Disney-friendly than popular culture would have you believe, and it was far more indicative of the real relationship between colonists and Native Americans. Unhappy with Chief Powhatan, a group of English settlers paid a rival Native Ameriacn group to coerce Pocahontas onto an English ship so that she could be held for ransom. Captain Samuel Argall ordered her capture, and then compensated the Native Americans who helped him with a copper kettle for their troubles.

She Was Born Into Royalty – Kind Of

She Was Born Into Royalty - Ki... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas is known as being one of the main Disney princesses, but that is only partially true historically. Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan, the head of a major alliance of Algonquin-speaking groups, which was one of the largest alliances in North America. The area he represented was known as the Tsenacommacah. However, Pocahontas had 26 brothers and sisters to share her status with, so she was far from the only royal child running around Tsenacommacah, even if she was reportedly the chief’s favorite daughter. The chiefdom did not share its power hereditarily, either, so the idea of Pocahontas being royalty is not exactly true.

Pocahontas Was Only One Of Her Names

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Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas is the most common name that we know this important historical figure by, but it might actually be the least formal name she held. “Pocahontas” was a mildly pejorative nickname that translated into something along the lines of “spoiled child.” She was also known as Mataoka for most of her childhood and later went by the name of Amonute. Then, after her conversion to Christianity, she became known as Rebecca – a name she would carry until her death.

The John Smith Story Is Likely BS

The John Smith Story Is Likely... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You
Photo:  Wikimedia Commons

The tale most commonly told about Pocahontas might not even be a real story at all. Supposedly, Pocahontas saved the English colonist John Smith from execution at the hands of her father, and then the two went on to begin a romantic relationship. Apparently, the love between the two helped the European settlers of Jamestown get along with the Native Americans for a brief period.

But some question whether or not Smith was ever in any real danger, whereas others question whether the meeting ever even happened. John Smith earned the reputation of being a bit of an exaggerator, and there’s no direct evidence that his interaction with Pocahontas or her father ever occurred. Most sources believe that Pocahontas would have been about 11 years old when the meeting was said to have happened, which is far too young for a romance between the two.

Smith Only Linked Himself To Pocahontas After She Became A Minor Celebrity

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

John Smith didn’t write about his rescue by, or romance with, Pocahontas until more than 15 years after it supposedly happened. What’s more, Smith wrote plenty during and about the time period when his adventures with Pocahontas were said to have occurred, but failed to mention her at all. In fact, when Smith did finally write about her, she had already become a celebrity in England, thanks to her marriage to a different Englishman and her subsequent cross-ocean visit, which makes it pretty likely that Smith just crafted a lie to try to cash in on her fame.

Pocahontas Was Tatted Up And Had A Wicked Fashion Sense

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

When she hit adulthood at the frighteningly young age of 14, Pocahontas began to turn her eyes toward marriage. During her courting days, she was known to rock a fashionable and alluring one-strapped deerskin dress, which was a real hit with the fellas. She also began to cover her skin in traditional tattoos, making her look like quite the badass. Eventually, Pocahontas would journey to Europe, where she adapted to local fashion with aplomb and sported some pretty bitchin’ hats.

Pocahontas Was Already Married To A Local Warrior

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

If John Smith and Pocahontas did have any sort of romantic relationship, it is certain that they never joined each other in wedded bliss. Pocahontas did get married on two occasions in her life, including once at the age of 14 or so to a Native American warrior known as Kocoum. Little is known about Kocoum, but he appears to have been some sort of military leader and is referred to by some sources as a “captain.” Others suggest that Kocoum was one of Pocahontas’s father’s bodyguards. The fact that she did not marry a man of high political standing mean that she probably married Kocoum for love, but the marriage apparently did not last.

She Went On A Diplomatic Mission To Avoid War

She Went On A Diplomatic Missi is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

While held for ransom in Jamestown, Pocahontas became inculcated in European customs, language, and religion. Her forced education made her a convenient diplomat and go-between for the English colonists to use in negotiations with Native Americans. Oddly enough, Pocahontas was sent to her father to defuse the tense situation that had begun with her own kidnapping. Pocahontas won peace by assuring her father that she was happy with the English and would rather stay with them than return home, an act that ultimately prevented more bloodshed between the two groups.

Pocahontas Became A Symbol Of Peace And Religious Conversion

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Much of the mythology surrounding the story of Pocahontas can clearly be tied to the fact that she became a symbol of peace to the English. The fact that her conversion to Christianity came while she was a prisoner did not dissuade the Europeans from using her as a textbook example of the power of their religion and its ability to bring peace to diverse groups of people. Her assimilation into English culture became an impetus to insist that all Native American people should be converted to Christianity and “civilized” by whatever means necessary.

Pocahontas Gained Her Real Fame By Marrying An Englishman

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Pocahontas did actually gain worldwide fame and historical notoriety because of a romantic relationship with an Englishman, but it was not John Smith. Rather, Pocahontas met a wealthy widower named John Rolfe during her time in captivity, and the two soon married. Rolfe was coming over to Virginia to farm tobacco, but he lost his wife and child on the journey across the ocean. The two were eventually married on April 5, 1614, and their son, Thomas, was born about a year later. The family lived on Rolfe’s tobacco farm for a number of years, and their steady marriage was yet another reason for sustained peace between the colonists and her father’s people. This was the first recorded interracial marriage in North American history.

Pocahontas Went On Tour As A Curiosity In England

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After a few years of marriage, John Rolfe and Pocahontas, then known as Rebecca Rolfe, sailed back to England in 1616. The arrival of a Native American “princess” was much hyped, and she was described as the “daughter of the most powerful prince of the Powhatan Empire of Virginia.” She was treated as a curiosity by most, but she was relatively well-treated during a whirlwind tour of England. While there, Pocahontas was the guest of honor at some grand balls, attended plays, and even met the king and queen. She also reportedly ran into John Smith, but didn’t speak to him, giving further evidence that his story is bologna.

Pocahontas Died On Her Way Back To North America

Pocahontas Died On Her Way Bac is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

After her whirlwind tour of England in 1616, Rebecca Rolfe was set to return to her home continent in 1617. Sadly, she would not make it back to Virginia, and in fact would not even make it to the ocean. While sailing down the Thames River, Pocahontas fell ill with an unknown sickness, which has been speculated to be pneumonia or dysentery. She and her family were taken ashore at the town of Gravesend, where Pocahontas would die at the age of 21. John Rolfe returned to Virginia alone, having left his also-ailing son back in England, and shortly after his arrival, his father-in-law, Powhatan, also died. The peace that Pocahontas had helped forge then slowly began to unravel.

Her Son, Thomas Rolfe, Became One Of The Wealthiest Men In The New World

Her Son, Thomas Rolfe, Became is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list The Story of the Real Pocahontas Disney Didn't Tell You
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Unlike his mother, Thomas Rolfe survived his sickness, and eventually returned to North America, although not for some time. His father, John Rolfe, died in 1622, but Thomas did not return to Virginia until 1635. Although the Powhatan Empire did not consider Thomas for the leadership role vacated by his grandfather, they did grant the son of Pocahontas thousands of acres of land along the James River. Thomas would use this inheritance to become the wealthiest tobacco farmer in the New World, and he also had a daughter, Jane, who ensured that Pocahontas’s bloodline would live on for generations to come.

(For the source of this, and many other interesting historical articles, please visit: https://www.ranker.com/list/facts-about-the-real-pocahontas/stephanroget/)



Cahokia: North America’s massive, ancient city

It was a sprawling civilization.

  • Near modern-day St. Louis, Missouri, you can find towering mounds of earth that were once the product of a vast North American culture.
  • Cahokia was the largest city built by this Native American civilization.
  • Because the ancient people who built Cahokia didn’t have a writing system, little is known of their culture. Archaeological evidence, however, hints at a fascinating society.

Mesopotamia had Ur, a wealthy city from 2100 BCE and a towering ziggurat. Egypt had Memphis and Alexandria, with their great pyramids and library, respectively. The Toltecs or Totonacs, who resided in modern-day Mexico, had Teotihuacán, which hosted over 125,000 people in its monolithic architecture.

Ancient cities seem to have sprung up all over the world, each of which must have been magnificent sights in their day. But it seems like a handful of these cities hog all the limelight. Though Teotihuacán may be known, for instance, few are familiar with North America’s other great ancient city, Cahokia.

Mysterious mounds near St. Louis

Monks Mound, the largest remaining mound in Cahokia. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

About 10 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, 80 mounds of earth dot 2,200 acres of land, the largest of which covers 13.8 acres and rises 100 feet high. These 80 mounds are the remainders of 120 mounds built 1,000 years before Columbus reached North America by a forgotten people called the Mississippians, named after the great river they lived near. All told, the mounds would have required the excavation of about 55 million cubic feet of earth.

The Mississippian civilization is poorly understood; they had no writing system, and by the time Europeans bothered to seriously document their culture, they had been scattered, wiped out by European diseases they had no immunities to.

Instead, much of our understanding of the Mississippians has come from archaeology, and the city of Cahokia represents the greatest trove of archaeological evidence. The city was named after the Cahokia tribe that lived in the area when the French first arrived, though they were not its original inhabitants. In fact, by that time in the 17th century, Cahokia was abandoned.

Though the Mississippians had no writing system, Cahokia was clearly the product of some kind of centralized planning. Its many great mounds are a testament to that, as well as the 50-acre leveled plain of the city named the Grand Plaza; the remains of a copper workshop; a palisade that surrounded its central, ceremonial district; and large henges made of wood.

When Cahokia was at its greatest between 1050 and 1200 CE, it hosted an estimated 40,000 Mississippians, more than the city of London at the time. The bulk of these people flocked to the city between 1050 and 1100, where they built homes, established the Grand Plaza, and built more mounds that raised important buildings over the thousands of other homes in Cahokia.

Life in Cahokia


We can glean some other features of Cahokian life from the fragments they left behind. We’ve found carved discs throughout Cahokia that were used in a game called “chunkey” that was played on the large flat field of the Grand Plaza. Participants rolled the chunkey stone across the field and threw spears toward where they thought the stone would come to rest. Huge audiences watched chunkey players, and players often gambled on the outcome.

But life in Cahokia wasn’t entirely fun and games. There is also evidence that the Cahokians engaged in human sacrifice. At one mound in particular, dubbed Mound 72, researchers found the remains of 272 people. In one instance of sacrifice, 39 people were lined up in front of a pit and clubbed one by one, falling into a mass grave. Two dozen different mass graves populate Mound 72, all of which contain the remains of people who had been strangled, clubbed, and even buried alive.

But there’s also a more reverent grave at Mound 72: a man buried on 20,000 beads made from seashells, which were status symbols and luxury items in Mississippian culture. These beads were arranged in the shape of a falcon. The falcon was an important symbol in Mississippian culture, typically associated with great warriors and chunkey players.

The city’s decline

By the time Columbus and other Europeans arrived in America, Cahokia was abandoned and had been since approximately 1300. What drove the Mississippians away from the vast city is unclear. It’s possible there had been some kind of conflict with another people — the palisade that encircled part of the city speaks to that.

Or, it could be that the unique density of Cahokia led to its downfall. Few other places in North America had tens of thousands of humans living in close proximity with one another. It could be that disease wiped out the Cahokians or that the area was overhunted, overfished, and overfarmed. Some evidence also suggests that the area was severely flooded twice: once between 1100 and 1260 and again between 1340 and 1460. Possibly a combination of these factors led the mound-builders to abandon Cahokia.

Today, Cahokia is preserved as a historic site that anyone can visit. However, Cahokia only gained its protective status in the 1960s. Prior to that, it was the site of heavy development — some of its mounds had been leveled for farming, airfields, housing, and highways. Fortunately, much of the site still remains, and it represents one of the few ancient cities left to visit in North America.

Related Articles Around the Web

(For the source of this, and many other interesting articles, please visit: https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/cahokia-ancient-native-american-city/)




Googling “mysterious ancient discoveries” or “unexplained ancient inventions” leads to dozens of sites listing artifacts supposedly so baffling the only possible answer could be aliens, time travel, the paranormal, the Iluminati, or aliens. Wait – did we already mention aliens? Sorry: they’re a go-to explanation for anything apparently too sophisticated, weird, or “out-of-place” for “humans figured it out, okay?” to be a satisfying explanation.

It’s a disheartening discovery, because once you separate the hoaxes and nonsense from the finds of actual archeological interest, there are still cool mysteries to explore. The list below features mysterious ancient inventions, unexplained ancient discoveries, and some slightly more recent finds still baffling to scientists in the 21st century – but not because they’re a sign of alien tech. Give ancient humanity a little more credit, y’know?

Deadly “Greek Fire” Was a Family Secret

Deadly "Greek Fire" Wa... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia

It’s not like anyone is aching for napalm to make a comeback, but scientists and historians are nonetheless very curious about 7th-century “Greek Fire,” a deadly proto-napalm fired from ships that “would cling to flesh and was impossible to extinguish with water.” Sounds like a nightmare!

The Byzantine Empire wielded it with aplomb, but, like Coca-Cola Classic and Bush’s Baked Beans, the recipe for Greek Fire™ was a protected family secret. National Geographic pulled a Mythbusters and took a guess at the ingredients in 2002, using a “bronze pump” and a “mixture of light crude oil and pine resin.” The results? It destroyed a ship “in minutes.” Good guess!

The Recipe for Damascus Steel Remains a Mystery

The Recipe for Damascus Steel ... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia

Returning from the Crusades, a lot of perplexed Europeans started talking about swords wielded by Islamic warriors “that could slice through a floating handkerchief, bend 90 degrees and flex back with no damage.” Fast-forward to the 21st century and the recipe for so-called “Damascus steel” is still a mystery.

The best guess is that the blades consisted of “crucible steel,” which is created by melting iron with plant matter. Still, no one knows the specific type of crucible steel used to yield such a blade. It might as well be a lightsaber.

The Voynich Manuscript May Ultimately Just Be Indecipherable

The Voynich Manuscript May Ult... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Public Domain/via Wikimedia

If you haven’t heard of the Voynich Manuscript, you’re in for a treat. Researchers say the absolutely bonkers, hand-written and hand-drawn manuscript, featuring text in an indecipherable language and hundreds of illustrations including “a myriad of drawings of miniature female nudes, most with swelled abdomens, immersed or wading in fluids and oddly interacting with interconnecting tubes and capsules,” was created by someone sometime during the 15th century in Central Europe. A Polish-American antiquarian bookseller named Wilfrid M. Voynich acquired it in 1912. Other than that, who knows? It’s a total mystery.

If it’s supposed to mean anything or help people understand anything, it has failed miserably. That said, it is one of the few genuine mysteries out there. Do yourself a favor: jump down the Voynich rabbit hole. Just don’t blame Ranker if you lose your mind a little.

The Antikythera Mechanism Is a Mysterious Astrological Calendar

The Antikythera Mechanism Is a... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo:  Marsyas /via Wikimedia

Unlike the Roman dodecahedra, scientists have a pretty good idea what the so-called Antikythera Mechanism is all about. Discovered at the bottom of the sea in 1901, the intricate device was likely constructed around the end of the second century BC.  It “calculated and displayed celestial information, particularly cycles such as the phases of the moon and a luni-solar calendar,” according to research compiled in Nature.

But we still don’t know who built it, who used it, and what they used it for, exactly. It’s also still unclear why it is “technically more complex than any known device for at least a millennium afterwards,” to quote the Nature abstract, which prompted a zillion “ancient aliens” and “TIME TRAVEL IS REAL!!” blog posts after it was published in 2006.

But history, as Brian Dunning of Skeptoid notes, tells us similar gear-based technology was around two and a half millennia prior, and Occam’s Razor tells us any “siblings” of the Antikythera Mechanism, like most commonplace bronze objects of the period, were likely “recycled” into other objects. It’s still mysterious, just for less sexy reasons than some might think.

Zhang Heng’s Seismoscope Detected Earthquakes (Somehow)

Zhang Heng's Seismoscope D is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Kowloonese/via Wikimedia

The first earthquake-detecting tool in history was this ornate, golden, dragon-festooned, toad-surrounded vessel from around 132 AD. The picture is of a replica, but you get the idea, right? No? Okay, here’s the idea: when the earth quakes, one of the dragons, each representing principal directions of the compass, would spit out a ball into a toad’s mouth, indicating the direction of the quake.

The instrument was said to have “detected a four-hundred-mile distant earthquake which was not felt at the location of the seismoscope.” Either that, or someone bumped up against it, because to this day, no one actually knows what was really inside the thing. (More dragons, maybe?) Some say it could have been a simple pendulum-based system, but the exact “science” remains a mystery.

It’s Unclear How Vikings Made Their Ulfberht Swords

It's Unclear How Vikings M is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Anders Lorange/via Wikimedia

Speaking of insane swords – the Vikings may have used techniques or materials borrowed from the creators of Damascus steel to make their legendary “Ulfberht” swords. When archeologists discovered the Viking blades, they were shocked because “the technology needed to produce such pure metal would not be invented for another 800 years.”

But in 2014, a 9th-century Viking grave was discovered in Scandanavia with an Islamic inscription meaning “for/to Allah,” linking the two worlds and making the shared knowledge plausible – but that’s just a guess. The true origin of the blades is still unknown.

Scientists Disagree About Why the Iron Pillar of Delhi Won’t Rust

Scientists Disagree About Why is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Imahesh3847/via Wikimedia

The more-than-1600-year-old “Iron Pillar of Delhi” has scientists divided about its weird resistance to rust. There are two schools of thought: Team Environment says the mild climate of Delhi, India, is ultimately to thank. Right place, right time, essentially. Team Materials says it’s all about the “presence of phosphorus, and absence of sulfur [and] manganese in the iron,” plus the “large mass of the pillar.”

One thing both camps agree on? It’s a total mystery how the rust-resistant iron lumps were “forge-welded to produce the massive six-ton structure.” Regardless, it’s an impressive piece of engineering.

The Phaistos Disk Could Be a Prayer or an Ancient Typewriter

The Phaistos Disk Could Be a P is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: C messier/via Wikimedia

This giant sugar cookie is a head-scratcher, for sure, but there are some interesting theories out there. Discovered in 1908 in Crete, this 6-inch diameter clay disk dates back to around 1700 BC and features 241 “words” created out of 45 individual symbols, arranged in a spiral.

It could be a sort of ancient “sheet music” to a hymn or prayer dedicated to matriarchal deity, or maybe it’s an ancient proto-typewriter? Who knows? It sure looks delicious, though.

Roman Dodecahedra Might Just Be Candlesticks

Roman Dodecahedra Might Just B is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Itub/via Wikimedia

If you think these little bronze guys would make excellent paperweights or tchotchkes – well, so did the ancient Romans, maybe? We honestly have no idea. They could have been useless objects meant for decoration, a conversation piece for the 2nd-to-4th-century Roman equivalent of coffee tables.

George Hart of Stony Brook University notes dozens of these twelve-sided, 4-to-11 cm. spheroids have been found throughout Europe, yet the Romans made no mention of them. Guesses include candle stands, flower stands, surveying instruments, finger ring-size gauges, and even D&D-style dice. Maybe the ancient Romans were pen-and-paper stylus-and-papyrus RPG enthusiasts?

It’s Unclear What the Giant Balls of Costa Rica Were Used For

It's Unclear What the Giant Ba is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list 10 Mysterious Ancient Inventions Science Still Can't Explain
Photo: Rodtico21/via Wikimedia

Scientists have a pretty good idea how these giant, ancient stone balls found in Costa Rica were formed. From around ca. 200 BC to AD 800, natives used “fracture, pecking, and grinding” techniques to reduce granodiorite, a large igneous stone, into these pleasing spheres. What’s mysterious is why they did it.

Ultimately, it may never be understood, since vandals have moved almost all of them from their original locations, making it impossible to test theories about their use as calendars or navigational tools. Some gullible vandals even blew the balls up, hoping to find gold in them thar balls. (They didn’t.)

(For the source of this, and many other interesting history-related articles, please visit: https://www.ranker.com/list/mysterious-ancient-scientific-discoveries-and-inventions/kellen-perry/)



Meet Lise Meitner, the physicist who discovered how to split an atom

Her discovery of nuclear fission led the way to nuclear power—and the Cold War

A version of this story originally appeared on The Conversation

  By Timothy J. Jorgensen, Public Health, Radiation Biology, and Cancer Epidemiology – Georgetown University –


Nuclear fission – the physical process by which very large atoms like uranium split into pairs of smaller atoms – is what makes nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants possible. But for many years, physicists believed it energetically impossible for atoms as large as uranium (atomic mass = 235 or 238) to be split into two.

That all changed on Feb. 11, 1939, with a letter to the editor of Nature – a premier international scientific journal – that described exactly how such a thing could occur and even named it fission. In that letter, physicist Lise Meitner, with the assistance of her young nephew Otto Frisch, provided a physical explanation of how nuclear fission could happen.

It was a massive leap forward in nuclear physics, but today Lise Meitner remains obscure and largely forgotten. She was excluded from the victory celebration because she was a Jewish woman. Her story is a sad one.

What happens when you split an atom

Meitner based her fission argument on the “liquid droplet model” of nuclear structure – a model that likened the forces that hold the atomic nucleus together to the surface tension that gives a water droplet its structure.

She noted that the surface tension of an atomic nucleus weakens as the charge of the nucleus increases, and could even approach zero tension if the nuclear charge was very high, as is the case for uranium (charge = 92+). The lack of sufficient nuclear surface tension would then allow the nucleus to split into two fragments when struck by a neutron – a chargeless subatomic particle – with each fragment carrying away very high levels of kinetic energy. Meisner remarked: “The whole ‘fission’ process can thus be described in an essentially classical [physics] way.” Just that simple, right?

Meitner went further to explain how her scientific colleagues had gotten it wrong. When scientists bombarded uranium with neutrons, they believed the uranium nucleus, rather than splitting, captured some neutrons. These captured neutrons were then converted into positively charged protons and thus transformed the uranium into the incrementally larger elements on the periodic table of elements – the so-called “transuranium,” or beyond uranium, elements.

Some people were skeptical that neutron bombardment could produce transuranium elements, including Irene Joliot-Curie – Marie Curie’s daughter – and Meitner. Joliot-Curie had found that one of these new alleged transuranium elements actually behaved chemically just like radium, the element her mother had discovered. Joliot-Curie suggested that it might be just radium (atomic mass = 226) – an element somewhat smaller than uranium – that was coming from the neutron-bombarded uranium.

Meitner had an alternative explanation. She thought that, rather than radium, the element in question might actually be barium – an element with a chemistry very similar to radium. The issue of radium versus barium was very important to Meitner because barium (atomic mass = 139) was a possible fission product according to her split uranium theory, but radium was not – it was too big (atomic mass = 226).

When a neutron bombards a uranium atom, the uranium nucleus splits into two different smaller nuclei.  Stefan-Xp/Wikimedia Commons

Meitner urged her chemist colleague Otto Hahn to try to further purify the uranium bombardment samples and assess whether they were, in fact, made up of radium or its chemical cousin barium. Hahn complied, and he found that Meitner was correct: the element in the sample was indeed barium, not radium. Hahn’s finding suggested that the uranium nucleus had split into pieces – becoming two different elements with smaller nuclei – just as Meitner had suspected.

As a Jewish woman, Meitner was left behind

Meitner should have been the hero of the day, and the physicists and chemists should have jointly published their findings and waited to receive the world’s accolades for their discovery of nuclear fission. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Meitner had two difficulties: She was a Jew living as an exile in Sweden because of the Jewish persecution going on in Nazi Germany, and she was a woman. She might have overcome either one of these obstacles to scientific success, but both proved insurmountable.