ASU Professor Austen Angell feted with 2019 Lise Meitner award from Sweden

September 26, 2019

Arizona State University Regents Professor Austen Angell, of the School of Molecular Sciences, recently enjoyed three days of festivities at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden to receive the 2019 Lise Meitner Award.

The Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award is presented every year to a scientist who has made a breakthrough discovery in physics. In conjunction with the award ceremony, the laureate gives a lecture in honor and memory of the female nuclear physicist who many now agree was deserving of a Nobel Prize for her breakthrough insight into the mechanism of nuclear fission. She was unfairly denied because of her sex and religious affiliation. Austen Angell ASU Regents Professor Austen Angell receives the 2019 Lise Meitner award from Anders Palmqvist, the vice president of research and research education and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering and applied chemistry at Chalmers University, Gothenburg, Sweden. Download Full Image

The last American Meitner awardee was Mildred Dresselhaus, a physics professor emeritus from MIT, in 2013, who also received the 2012 Enrico Fermi Award and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014.

“When I read of the accomplishments of previous awardees, I was very humbled and also a little nervous,” Angell said. The citation this year reads, “For inventing the concept of fragility of glass-forming liquids”.

The liquid state of matter is central to many of nature’s cycles, and certainly to life itself, but is poorly understood because of its lack of order.

“Glass-forming liquids range from volcanic to cryogenic and have fluidities that can be measured over 17 orders of magnitude, so are still less understood," Angell said.

“Fragility” captures, in one word and one diagram, all the variations in the fluidity that are found in any of nature’s liquids, and hints at some universality in character that theoreticians find tantalizing, while still out of reach.

The formal award is followed by a symposium in which other subjects of interest to the Gothenburg Physics Center are explored. The final day includes a visit to the peaceful nearby town of Kungalv, where Meitner spent the Christmas of 1938 after flight from Germany, and where she discovered her insight into the explanation of physicist Otto Hahn’s experimental data.

This year the emphasis in the symposium was on ionic liquids as electrolytes and battery components. One of the speakers was Angell’s son, Michael, who works with Hongjie Dai at Stanford University on aluminum-graphite batteries.

Angell has more than 500 publications and a Google Scholar H index of 109, and his work has been recognized with a number of awards, including the Hildebrand award of the American Chemical Society, the Turnbull lecture award of the Materials Research Society, the American Electrochemical Society’s Bredig Award and the Morey Award from the American Ceramic Society.

Video by Chalmers University, Gothenburg, Sweden

During his long career, Angell has worked mostly on liquids and glasses, but he has also published on geochemical, biophysical and battery electrolyte problems. He is currently making a major effort in the energy storage and conversion disciplines.

Angell has had collaborations with researchers at Chalmers for nearly 50 years, and he has been a faculty opponent on several occasions. He was nominated for the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award by professors Patrik Johansson and Aleksandar Matic, both at the Department of Physics at Chalmers University. 

“Scandinavia, in general, and Sweden and Chalmers in particular, have a long history in the field of molten salt and ionic liquid chemistry that I entered before I ever knew I would become an academic,” Angell said.

What does Angell hope to achieve with his research?

“This is not an easy question to deal with, without sounding trivial or pompous," he said. "One obvious answer is that I wish to quickly solve the problems that I have proposed to my funding agencies, so that they will continue to support my research. The more serious answer is that I wish to earn the respect and friendship of my many colleagues in the international quest for new solutions to recognized scientific problems, especially those of societal importance."

Lise Meitner and nuclear fission

This year, 80 years have passed since the Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch provided a physical explanation for the occurrence of nuclear fission. Her long-term collaborator Otto Hahn was the only one to be awarded the Nobel Prize (surprisingly in chemistry) in 1944 for the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei.

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 in Nature that described exactly how such a thing could occur and even named it fission. In that letter, Meitner, with the assistance of her young nephew Frisch, provided a physical explanation of how nuclear fission could happen.

It was a massive leap forward in nuclear physics, but Meitner was excluded from the victory celebration because she was a Jewish woman.

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner receiving the United States Department of Energy Enrico Fermi award in 1966.

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.”

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. 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 as it was too big.

Hahn 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.

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.

“Through the years, I have always known the name of Lise Meitner in connection with the early days of radioactivity discovery. But I didn’t know the details of her struggles with prejudice, not to say persecution,” Angell said. “I think it is great that the Gothenburg Physics Center has undertaken to play a role in keeping her name alive in our thoughts, given its proximity to her work-site.”

Jenny Green

Clinical associate professor, School of Molecular Sciences


Recovery from addiction … one conversation at a time

ASU class examines the role communication plays in addiction and recovery

September 26, 2019

September is Recovery Month, a national observance designed to increase awareness and understanding of mental and substance use disorders and celebrate the people who recover. A key message is that treatment is available and recovery is possible, but overcoming the stigma of addiction is a critical first step in helping people get the support they need.

Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Recovery Month sheds light on resources and programs, for individuals and families, including local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.  Students in Com 494: Communication, Alcoholism and Recovery hold a tabling event on the Tempe campus for the DYK10 campaign. Download Full Image

Many college campuses, including Arizona State University, also provide programs and resources, including on-campus counseling to students in recovery.  

Unique to ASU is a course devoted to addressing alcoholism and recovery among college students. 

COM 494: Communication, Alcoholism and Recovery examines the role communication plays in addiction and recovery. The course is taught each fall by Linda Lederman, professor and director of the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, an expert on communication and substance abuse, and co-editor of "Voices of Recovery from the Campus: Stories of and by College Students in Recovery from Addiction."

“In the Hugh Downs School we study communication in everyday life,” Lederman said. “And one of the ways we look at communication is in the context of health.  Not just health care, but all health issues, and addiction these days is a big health issue. Despite its prevalence across all segments of society, stigma is one of the most common barriers to treatment of alcoholism.”

Hidden population

Lederman says that college students are often a hidden population in outreach efforts because of stereotypical notions that depict alcoholics as older people.

“That’s the image that seems to go with an active alcoholic,” Lederman said. “In reality, people with alcohol-use disorder, the clinical term for the disease of alcoholism, can be anyone — a co-worker, spouse or a friend. Alcoholism does not discriminate and can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic status.”

Lederman adds that another common misperception among the public is that drinking in college is a "rite of passage" and that college students are too young to have alcoholism.

This misperception, explains Lederman, can mask a problem with alcohol use and means that people who need help may not be trying to get it.   

In "Communication, Alcoholism and Recovery," students learn about the disease, get to comprehend it in depth and work on a campaign to help spread the word to others.

They work on “DYK10” (Do You Know 10), the campaign designed by the students in the class over years to educate people to the fact that, on average, one in 10 people who drink have alcoholism. To help others learn that despite this prevalence across all segments of society, feelings of shame and fear of being perceived as weak or beyond hope can serve as major barriers to seeking help.

Students in Professor Lederman's class, Communication, Alcoholism and Recovery,
hold a tabling event on the Tempe campus to start conversations
on the stigma of alcoholism.

Students design, roll out and measure the campaign’s effectiveness by how many people they’ve reached, both at face-to-face events and through social media. 

The class comes up with innovative ways to get the DYK10 message out to the campus during the months of October and November — extending the messages from Recovery Month throughout the fall.  Students present at Greek Life meetings, do walkabouts and hold tabling events on the Tempe campus. 

Passersby are enticed to stop by with music, snacks and a game. Prizes include fun marketing materials that get the DYK10 message across, including PopSockets, stickers and flyers. 

Students chronicle meaningful exchanges about alcohol and recovery they hear at the events. As one team member wrote in a final presentation in the course about the campaign’s success: “We are making a positive impact and starting important conversations.”

Students in Lederman’s class learn that the words they use to talk about alcoholism carry with them different images and different connotations.

“You could describe someone as an ‘alcoholic,’ or ‘someone with alcohol-use disorder’ or you can say ‘somebody with alcoholism,’” Lederman said. “It’s fine to use any of the terms but important to know the different images they convey.”

At the end of the course, not only have the students run a campaign and reached others, but they also consider themselves to be allies of people in recovery.

“It is the stigma attached to alcoholism that keeps active alcoholics from getting help for their disease,” Lederman said. “It is the stigma that keeps active alcoholics from talking more openly about their disease. The DYK10 campaign allows students to have conversations with others that help them understand that treatment is available and recovery is possible, but overcoming stigma is a critical first step in getting the support they need.” 

Students in COM494 created this video for their final presentation.  

Manager, Marketing and Communication, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication