Physics in Perspective

, Volume 15, Issue 1, pp 3–32 | Cite as

Marietta Blau: Pioneer of Photographic Nuclear Emulsions and Particle Physics

  • Ruth Lewin Sime


During the 1920s and 1930s, Viennese physicist Marietta Blau (1894–1970) pioneered the use of photographic methods for imaging high-energy nuclear particles and events. In 1937 she and Hertha Wambacher discovered “disintegration stars” – the tracks of massive nuclear disintegrations – in emulsions exposed to cosmic radiation. This discovery launched the field of particle physics, but Blau’s contributions were underrecognized and she herself was nearly forgotten. I trace Blau’s career at the Institut für Radiumforschung in Vienna and the causes of this “forgetting,” including her forced emigration from Austria in 1938, the behavior of her colleagues in Vienna during and after the National Socialist period, and the flawed Nobel decision process that excluded her from a Nobel Prize.


Marietta Blau James Chadwick Franz S. Exner Ellen Gleditsch Victor F. Hess Berta Karlik Gerhard Kirsch Axel Lindh Lise Meitner Stefan Meyer Gustav Ortner Fritz Paneth Hans Pettersson Cecil F. Powell Ernest Rutherford Erwin Schrödinger Manne Siegbahn Georg Stetter Hans Thirring Hertha Wambacher Institut für Radiumforschung Instituto Politécnico Nacional Cambridge-Vienna controversy Nobel Prize in Physics radioactivity cosmic rays elementary particles nuclear emulsions history of particle physics 



I am indebted to Nina Byers for calling Blau's work to my attention, to the late Leopold E. Halpern and Maurice M. Shapiro for generously sharing with me their memories of Blau’s life and work, and to the late Elisabeth Crawford for her knowledge and insight. For access to archival material I thank Stefan Sienell and the staff of the Archiv der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Anders Larsson of the Göteborgs Universitetsbibliotek, Wolfgang Kerber of the Österreichischen Zentralbibliothek für Physik in Wien, Karl Grandin of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Nobel Archive, the staff of the Archiv der Universität Wien, and Marion Kazemi and the staff of the Archiv der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. I am grateful to Robert Rosner, Wolfgang Reiter, Arnold Schmidt, Wolfgang Kerber, Silke Fengler, Carola Sachse, and Jeffrey Hughes for their help and good discussions, and I owe special thanks to Roger H. Stuewer for his valuable critique and careful editorial attention to this paper.


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  104. 104.
    See for example Manfred Drosg and Peter Galison reply in “More on Marietta Blau” (ref. 3), pp. 82-84.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Basel AG 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry, EmeritusSacramento City CollegeSacramentoUSA

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