Marietta Blau

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Marietta Blau
Marietta Blau Portrait
Born(1894-04-29)29 April 1894
Died27 January 1970(1970-01-27) (aged 75)
Vienna, Austria
Known forUsing nuclear emulsions to detect high energy particles

Marietta Blau (29 April 1894 – 27 January 1970) was an Austrian physicist credited with developing photographic nuclear emulsions that were usefully able to image and accurately measure high-energy nuclear particles and events, significantly advancing the field of particle physics in her time. For this, she was awarded the Lieben Prize by the Austrian Academy of Sciences. As a Jew, she was forced to flee Austria when Nazi Germany annexed it in 1938, eventually making her way to the United States. She was nominated for Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry for her work, but did not win. After her return to Austria, she won the Erwin Schrödinger Prize from the Austrian Academy of Sciences.


Blau was born on 29 April 1894 in a middle-class Jewish family, to Mayer (Markus) Blau, a court lawyer and music publisher, and his wife, Florentine Goldzweig. After having obtained the general certificate of education from the girls' high school run by the Association for the Extended Education of Women,[1][2] she studied physics and mathematics at the University of Vienna from 1914 to 1918; her PhD, on the absorption of gamma rays, was awarded in March 1919.[3][1] Blau is credited with developing (photographic) nuclear emulsions that were usefully able to image and accurately measure high energy nuclear particles and events. Additionally, this established a method to accurately study reactions caused by cosmic ray events. Her nuclear emulsions significantly advanced the field of particle physics in her time. For her work, she was nominated several times, during the period 1950 to 1957, for the Nobel Prize in Physics and once for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry by Erwin Schrödinger and Hans Thirring.[4][5]

Pre World War 2[edit]

From 1919 to 1923, Blau held several positions in industrial and University research institutions in Austria and Germany; in 1921, she moved to Berlin to work at a manufacturer of x-ray tubes, a position she left in order to become an assistant at the Institute for Medical Physics at the University of Frankfurt am Main.[1] From 1923 on, she worked as an unpaid scientist at the Institute for Radium Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna. A stipend by the Austrian Association of University Women made it possible for her to do research also in Göttingen and Paris (1932/1933).

In her Vienna years, Blau's main interest was the development of the photographic method of particle detection. The methodical goals which she pursued were the identification of particles, in particular alpha-particles and protons, and the determination of their energy based on the characteristics of the tracks they left in emulsions; there, she developed a photographic emulsion technique used in the study of cosmic rays,[1] being the first scientist to use nuclear emulsions to detect neutrons. For this work, Blau and her former student Hertha Wambacher received the Lieben Prize of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1937. It was her greatest success when, also in 1937, she and Wambacher discovered "disintegration stars" in photographic plates that had been exposed to cosmic radiation at an altitude of 2,300 metres (≈7,500 feet) above sea level. These stars are the patterns of particle tracks from nuclear reactions (spallation events) of cosmic-ray particles with nuclei of the photographic emulsion.

GuentherZ 2007-05-05 2878 Wien06 Rahlgasse Marietta Blau.jpg

Because of her Jewish descent, Blau had to leave Austria in 1938 after the country's annexation by Nazi Germany, a fact which caused a severe break in her scientific career. She first went to Oslo. Then, through the intercession of Albert Einstein,[1][6] she obtained a teaching position at the Instituto Politécnico Nacional in Mexico City and later at Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo,[6] but since conditions in Mexico made research extremely difficult for her, she seized an opportunity to move to the United States in 1944.[4]


In the United States, Blau worked in industry until 1948, afterwards (until 1960) at Columbia University, Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Miami. At these institutions, she was responsible for the application of the photographic method of particle detection in high-energy experiments at particle accelerators.

In 1960, Blau returned to Austria and conducted scientific work at the Institute for Radium Research until 1964 – again without pay. She headed a working group analyzing particle-track photographs from experiments at CERN and supervised a dissertation in this field.[7][8] In 1962, she received the Erwin Schrödinger Prize of the Austrian Academy of Sciences,[9] but an attempt to make her also a corresponding member of the Academy was not successful.[10]


Marietta Blau died in Vienna from cancer on 27 January 1970.[11] Her illness was related to her unprotected handling of radioactive substances[1] as well as her cigarette smoking over many years. No obituary appeared in any scientific publication.[10]


In 1950, Cecil Powell received the Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of the photographic method for particle detection and the discovery of the pion by use of Blau's method.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Marietta Blau. Jewish Women's Archive
  2. ^ AHS-Rahlgasse In 1888 an association was founded with the aim of establishing a girls' high school. This goal was achieved in 1892 with the founding of the first girls' grammar school. The school founder was Marianne Hainisch. Our school was the first grammar school for girls in what is now the Republic of Austria, i.e. the first school that gave girls a higher education entrance qualification. The first girls' class was opened in Hegelgasse with 30 girls. But it was not until 1903 that the school was given public rights, and the institution was characterized by a high intellectual level from the very beginning. In 1910 they moved to the house at Rahlgasse 4, Vienna's 6th district. During the Nazi era, the school was nationalized and Jewish students were expelled.
  3. ^ Über die Absorption divergenter-Strahlung. Sitzungsberichte der Kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Mathematisch-naturwissenschaftliche Klasse, Abteilung 2a, 127 (1918): 1253–1279.
  4. ^ a b Sime, Ruth Lewin (2012). "Marietta Blau in the history of cosmic rays". Physics Today. 65 (10): 8. Bibcode:2012PhT....65j...8S. doi:10.1063/PT.3.1728. Archived from the original on 15 April 2013.
  5. ^ "Nobel Prize – Nomination Archive: Marietta Blau". The Nobel Foundation. 1 April 2020. Retrieved 6 April 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  6. ^ a b Marietta Blau, Pionera de la física de partículas que vino a México recomendada por Einstein. Diario Judío (in Spanish)
  7. ^ Sime, Ruth Lewin (2013). "Marietta Blau: Pioneer of Photographic Nuclear Emulsions and Particle Physics". Physics in Perspective. 15 (1): 3–32. Bibcode:2013PhP....15....3S. doi:10.1007/s00016-012-0097-6. ISSN 1422-6944. S2CID 120062050.
  8. ^ Perlmutter, Arnold (8 October 2001). "Marietta Blau's Work After World War II". arXiv:physics/0110028.
  9. ^ "Preisträger und Preisträgerinnen des Erwin Schrödinger-Preises" (in German). Austrian Academy of Sciences. Archived from the original on 19 August 2011. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
  10. ^ a b Marietta Blau Archived 20 August 2016 at the Wayback Machine. Unlearned lessons
  11. ^ Halpen 1997, p. 203.


  • Robert Rosner & Brigitte Strohmaier (eds.) (2003) Marietta Blau – Sterne der Zertrümmerung. Biographie einer Wegbereiterin der modernen Teilchenphysik. Böhlau, Vienna ISBN 3-205-77088-9 (in German)
  • Brigitte Strohmaier & Robert Rosner (2006) Marietta Blau – Stars of Disintegration. Biography of a pioneer of particle physics. Ariadne, Riverside, California ISBN 978-1-57241-147-0
  • Halpen, Leopold E. (1997). "Marietta Blau". In Rayner-Canham, Marelene F.; Rayner-Canham, Geoffrey (eds.). A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity. Montréal: McGill-Queen's University Press. pp. 196–204. ISBN 978-0-77351-642-7.
  • Leopold Halpern & Maurice Shapiro (2006) "Marietta Blau" in Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics, Nina Byers and Gary Williams, ed., Cambridge University Press ISBN 978-0-521-82197-1.
  • Rentetzi, Maria (1970–1980). "Blau, Marietta". Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Vol. 19. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 298–302. ISBN 978-0-684-10114-9.

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