How physicist Samira Moussa went from role model to target

How physicist Samira Moussa went from role model to target

How physicist Samira Moussa went from role model to target

Science and the technology it enables has always had a close relationship with war. But World War II saw the destructive power of science rise to a new level. As the threat of nuclear annihilation remained high throughout most of the Cold War, many in the public became uneasy with their governments and the scientists working for them.

Many physicists realized that the genie was out of the bottle and recognized – or shared – this distrust. They formed conferences or drafted policies to distance themselves from the nuclear threat. Others tried to spin nuclear technology more positively and focused on the advances it enabled in energy or medicine. These efforts to reassure the public continue today as scientists take similar steps to new, potentially devastating technologies such as gene editing.

During World War II, Samira Moussa, a relatively unknown Egyptian physicist, was one of the main figures who sought to use nuclear energy for good and to involve the public in that choice. Her work makes her a worthy role model for women and physicists around the world, but she is largely unaware that her crusade for peaceful nuclear power would ultimately cost her her life. Moussa was murdered at the age of 35 in a case that remains unsolved today.

Moussa’s early life and work on X-rays

Unfortunately, of the few records of Moussa’s life today, most are second-hand accounts or retellings of rumours, making it difficult to track her movements. She was born on March 3, 1917, north of Cairo. Not much is known about his childhood, but we do know that his mother died of cancer when Moussa was young. Her mother’s death would later inspire Moussa to study the use of radiation to treat cancer. After his mother’s death, Moussa and his father moved to Cairo, where his father established a hotel business. Some reports claim that Moussa’s father was a political activist, which may have inspired her later activism.

After success as a primary and secondary school student, Moussa was accepted into Cairo University’s nuclear physics program, focusing specifically on X-rays. Moussa could not have chosen a better field of study for the 1930s. X-rays were becoming a popular tool for many hospitals and private practices, as it was then standard for every institution to have an X-ray machine. In the US, this led to the creation of several organizations of x-ray technicians and x-ray-focused journals. Europe had a more extensive history with the development of X-rays as scientist Marie Curie transported mobile X-ray machines to World War I battlefields.

Like others before him, Moussa studied radioactive isotopes used to create medical images, which are still used today. Her PhD work caught the eye of Cairo University’s chair of science, Mustafa Musharraf, who recruited Moussa as a lecturer. Later, she became an assistant professor there, apparently the first woman to teach in a university setting while earning her Ph.D. It was an almost impossible feat, as British and other foreign professors still dominated many Egyptian universities. Nevertheless, Moussa achieved a series of firsts.

Finding the formula for nuclear fission

Thanks to her reputation, Moussa was able to move to the UK in the mid-1940s, where she completed her Ph.D. There, she collaborated with many researchers to further advance nuclear physics. Along with his colleagues, Moussa developed an equation that helped explain how to generate X-rays from cheap metals like copper, which could help make medical imaging more affordable. According to a 2022 Inside Arabia article, Moussa’s research “laid the foundation for the revolution and the affordability and safety of nuclear medicine.”

Encouraged by his discovery, Moussa turned his attention to medical applications, including reducing patient x-ray exposure time and making x-ray procedures more mobile and flexible. “I will make nuclear treatment available and as cheap as aspirin,” she said. However, she worried that the formula could be twisted to something even more deadly: an atomic bomb.

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