April 2010

Cambrdige Celebrates its Octocentenary

This post is not about educational technology, although I am using Internet and Wikipedia extensively to write it up. This post is more about education and its history and less about technology. A few years back we celebrated UBC’s centenary (100 years). Our university was established in 1905. The University of Toronto will celebrate its bicentenary in 2027 (it was established in 1827 as King’s College). McGill University, one of the oldest universities in Canada, established in 1821, 46 years before the Confederation (1867 – for the people who did not need to pass a Canadian Citizenship test lately and who do not remember this important date). However, Cambridge celebrated its octocentenary (800th anniversary) in 2009 – I could not refrain from posting  a link to its celebration and from using the word “octocentenary”. This is just mind boggling.

It is interesting to stop for a moment and reflect on how our educational system has evolved during the last thousands years. I was just thinking the other day that women were excluded from it for hundreds of years. While reading a very interesting (I strongly recommend it!) book by Gino Serge “Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics”, I was surprised to find out that as late as the beginning of the 20th century, a famous female physicist – Lise Meitner – was not allowed to enter a physics lab, so she had to work in the basement of the Max Planck Institute (it will was not called that then, but Max Plank was the person who invited Lise Meitner to work there). She had to work for years as an unpaid “guest” and be supported by her father because she was a woman.  Only in 1913, at the age of 35, was she able to get her first paid Assistant Professor position at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Prague. She had a very difficult life as she was a female physicist, a Jew and she happened to be born in Austria in 1878 (Einstein’s contemporary) and live through the horrors of the World War II (she had to escape Germany with a small bag at the age of 59).  Despite that Lise Meitner made a number of discoveries that changed the history of our planet:

– together with a colleague – Otto Hahn, who later ALONE received a Nobel Prize for the discoveries they made together – they discovered the first long-lived isotope of the element protactinium, they also discovered that bombarding heavy nuclei with neutrons can lead to new creation of new elements – nuclear fission (splitting the nucleus into smaller parts via bombarding them with neutrons);

– together with her nephew (Otto Frish) she theoretically explained nuclear fission – during a memorable Christmas walk of 1938. Lise Meitner was the first one who recognized the possibility of the chain reaction – the key idea that made a creation of nuclear weapons and nuclear power generation possible.

Anyways, and what does it all have to do with Cambridge? Lise Meitner escaped Nazi Germany in  1937. She was lucky to escape Germany as one of her colleagues, a chemist Kurt Hess, reported her to Nazi authorities. She moved to Sweden and became a Swedish Citizen in 1949. In 1960, at the age of 82 she moved to Britain. She died in Cambridge in 1968 shortly before her 90th birthday. Lise Meitner is buried in the village of Bramley in Hampshire, at St. James parish church.  Otto Frisch – her nephew – composed an inscription on her grave “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity”.

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