Late Bloomers

lise meitner

Lise Meitner, Nuclear Physicist

January 26, 2010
by James Sullivan
Austrian-born nuclear physicist Lise Meitner is credited with laying much of the theoretical groundwork for the atomic bomb, and was the first to calculate the explosive potential of nuclear fission. Despite her research, Meitner was never involved in the production “death-dealing weapons,” and refuted any claim to the contrary.

Lise Meitner’s Early Days

Lise Meitner was born on Nov. 7, 1878, to a Viennese lawyer—her father was one of the first Jewish men to practice law in Austria. She was third of eight children. Her interest in atomic physics began as a student, reading accounts of the discovery of radium by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1902.

She became the second women to earn a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1906, earning her degree in physics. Two years later Meitner moved to Berlin to study under Nobel Prize-winning physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics, Max Planck.

Meitner eventually established herself in Berlin, overcoming the climate of opposition toward women in the scientific community. In 1907 she began her working relationship with Dr. Otto Hahn, who would become a Nobel Prize-winning nuclear chemist.

Meitner’s Notable Accomplishments

Meitner had a 30-year scientific partnership with Hahn. During this time she was the first to calculate the release of energy by splitting a uranium atom. According to The New York Times, “Dr. Meitner is credited with having laid much of the theoretical groundwork for the atomic bomb, although she did not participate directly in its production.”

Marcia Bartusiak for The Washington Post described Hahn and Meitner as an “interdisciplinary yin and yang: Hahn, the chemist, Meitner, the physicist. While he was methodical, she was bold.”

In the early years of their partnership Hahn and Meitner discovered several new isotopes. In 1912 she worked in Hahn’s department of radiochemistry at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. During the first part of World War I Meitner worked as an X-ray nurse for the Austrian Army. She returned to Berlin in 1916 to continue her research.

In 1917 the Hahn-Meitner team discovered a new element, protactinium. This “element 91” filled the gap between thorium and uranium on the Periodic Table. She was given her own section at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry that same year.

In 1934 they began to study the nuclei of atoms and search for elements beyond uranium. During the ensuing years Hitler came to power, and his restrictions on “non-Aryan” academics grew tighter, and Meitner, despite being baptized a Protestant, was forced to flee Germany at the age of 59. She escaped to Holland, and ended up in Sweden, advising and directing Hahn toward the discovery of nuclear fission.

The Rest of the Story

A number of circumstances prevented Meitner from achieving the notoriety she deserved during her lifetime. When Hahn published the chemical evidence for fission, he did so without listing her as a co-author, given the situation in Germany at the time. In the aftermath of the war, Hahn distanced himself from Meitner, and perpetuated the fiction that Meitner played no role in guiding his experiments toward discovery.

Without her name on the crucial paper, Hahn alone was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944.

Although, according to Bartusiak, Meitner had mixed feelings about being connected with the award-winning research, as her theories on fission would lead to the creation of the nuclear bomb, which she thoroughly deplored.

Meitner died on Oct. 27, 1968, in a nursing home in Cambridge, England. In 1994, an international commission immortalized Meitner by naming element 109 in her honor: “meitnerium.”

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