atw - International Journal for Nuclear Power | 04.2019


atw Vol. 64 (2019) | Issue 4 ı April


Chemistry in 1944. Later, Otto Hahn

referred to the use of nuclear fission

for military purposes as a “mess” that

he wanted no part of. [31] He initiated

action against the military use of

nuclear power, such as the Mainau

Declaration in 1955 or the Göttingen

Declaration in 1957.

To receive his Nobel Prize, Hahn

had to wait until the ceremony of 1946.

Awarding the prize to Otto Hahn alone

probably remains one of the most

debated decisions of the Nobel committee

until today. In his Nobel Lecture

on December 13 th , 1946, Hahn

explained the work of the team Hahn,

Meitner, and Straßmann in great

detail. [11, p. 247 and following pages]

Being a Nobel Laureate, Otto Hahn

later led the Kaiser- Wilhelm- Gesellschaft

and its successor, the Max-

Planck- Gesellschaft, whose presidency

he held until 1960.

Nevertheless, the developments

that occurred in other fields after the

discovery of nuclear fission have

certainly had a tremendous impact on

humanity. The enormous energy

release of the fission process soon led

the scientific community to think

about the possibilities of a power

reactor or an explosive bomb, in the

beginning cautiously called machine.

Enrico Fermi built the first nuclear

reactor in the world in Chicago in

1942. The first atomic bomb was

developed in the Manhattan Project.

With an incredible amount of money

and workforce, the Americans pushed

their nuclear program. Today, we see

it as the beginning of a new era when

the first atomic bomb was detonated

on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico

desert. The nuclear arms race was just

about to begin. To this day, the earth

has been shaken by 2053 nuclear

explosions. [32]

The artifact:

The “Otto-Hahn-table”

Since the 1920s, the Deutsches

Museum has had contact with Lise

Meitner, Otto Hahn and colleagues in

Berlin. They exchanged letters with

regard to donations of books or

samples of the element protactinium

discovered by Meitner and Hahn. [33]

Especially the director Jonathan

Zenneck corresponded with Otto

Hahn at length and in a friendly tone.

In 1952, the director of the Max

Planck Institute for Chemistry in

Mainz got in touch with the Deutsches

Museum to discuss the existing equipment

by Otto Hahn. Parts of the

original equipment that had been

moved after the war from Berlin via

the small city of Tailfingen to Mainz

had been arranged there on a table

and presented to the public. Once the

table and the apparatus were erected

in the museum, they waited for a text

to explain their meaning. It was

planned that a marble tablet should

bear the following text:


Discovered in 1938, together with

Fritz Straßmann, the fission of

uranium by neutrons, thus creating

the basis for the technical realization

of atomic energy. [34]

Otto Hahn was specifically asked

by Jonathan Zenneck about his opinion

of this synopsis. In his reply dated

April 8, 1953, Hahn was unenthusiastic

about the plans of the Museum:

“As much as I am delighted about

the attention [...] I’m a little depressed

about the presentation that is

apparently intended. It seems to me

somewhat exaggerated to construct a

special niche with a marble table,

because if the fission of uranium has

been found in aftermath to be very

important, neither Mr. Straßmann nor

I had any share in this development.”

In his letter, he goes on to mention

Lise Meitner and again asks for his

name not to be “mentioned with a

special appearance”. [35]

This letter clearly contradicts the

image that has sometimes been drawn

of Otto Hahn that he had spoken

too rarely about the share of his

colleagues in the discovery, particularly

Lise Meitner’s share. The mere

mentioning of the two colleagues in

this letter should have demonstrated

to Zenneck that the display as “Otto

Hahn table” was wrong. Zenneck and

his successors, however, did not

change anything and for several

decades the name “Otto-Hahn table”


This is how the visitors found

the artifact: It was called workbench,

but displayed devices, which were

never used together on one table.

The paraffin block and the neutron

sources (which were displayed as

reproductions) were used in an irradiation

room, while the chemical

analysis was undertaken in the

chemical laboratory of Straßmann.

The measurement of the radioactive

activities was conducted in the

measuring room. The pairwise

arrangement of the counters on the

table had no scientific grounding, but

gave the whole thing a wonderful

symmetry. That the measurements

would have been impossible if set

so closely to the neutron source

was never mentioned in one of the

museum texts. [36]

Otto Hahn was in the museum in

1963 for the 25th anniversary of

the discovery. He gave a television

interview to Heinz Haber, a pioneer in

scientific journalism at the time, in

which Hahn told the entire story in

great detail. [9] Hahn emphasized

the contributions and the great teamwork

between himself, Meitner and

Straßmann. A still image from the

movie is now regarded as the moment

Hahn arranges the devices for the

museum himself, a legend that is just

as persistent as it is wrong. [37]

In 1972, the chemistry exhibition

was reopened with a new architecture.

In a niche next to a large

model of a uranium atom, the table

stood in a new showcase. The marble

plaque had been removed, but the

sign “ Arbeitstisch von Otto Hahn”

(workbench of Otto Hahn) had

been taken from the old display. Lise

Meitner’s contribution to the discovery

still did not occur in the

Deutsches Museum.

Only in 1989, on the occasion of

a major exhibition, a balanced and

correct presentation of Meitner’s and

Straßmann’s contributions was finally

shown in the museum. [15 a)] Subsequently,

the museum worked together

with Meitner’s biographer Ruth Lewin

Sime to present a balanced account of


In December 2012, the object

moved to the exhibition about

museum history. The caption today

tries – with all brevity – to satisfy all

those involved in the decisive experiments,

and the table was officially

renamed Hahn-Meitner-Straßmann

table or simply nuclear fission table. It

will be presented in the new permanent

exhibition on chemistry from

2020 onwards.

Conclusion: The responsibility

of the museum curators

For the majority of visitors, it can be

assumed that they see the development

of nuclear power, with all its

consequences for the world, as more

important than the exact story of its

discovery. The table is presented as an

icon of the history of science and is at

the same time an arranged art object

whose aura is nourished by its almost

altar-like form. The global technical

and political significance of nuclear

fission certainly served as an amplifier

for the object’s glory, but was never

described in the exhibition. How did

the reputation of the acting persons

change over time?

Energy Policy, Economy and Law

The Nuclear Fission Table in the Deutsches Museum: A Fundamental Discovery on Display ı Susanne Rehn-Taube

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