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Lise Meitner: Co-Discoverer of Nuclear Fission


Lise Meitner, Physicist

On August 7, 1945, Lise Meitner received a call from a reporter with a Swedish newspaper. He would tell her that the first uranium bomb had been used over Hiroshima. Said to be the equivalent of 20,000 tons of ordinary explosives, the bomb had destroyed five square miles of Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 to 100,000 people. The order had been given by President Harry S. Truman. A second would be dropped on Nagasaki with similar consequences.

Lise Meitner (n. Elise Meitner) was born in the family apartment at 27 Kaiser Josefstrasse on either November 7 or 17 (per birth registry), 1878 in Vienna, Austria. She was the third of eight children of Phillip and Hedwig Meitner. From a young age, she had a passion for math and science at a time when education was limited to girls and formal school generally ended at age fourteen.

She developed an interest in physics and was the first woman admitted to the physics lectures and laboratories at the University of Vienna where her physics class would be taught by Professor Ludwig Bolzmann. He would create an environment where she and other female students were free to learn. In 1906, she graduated summa cum laude with her doctorate.

Thereafter in 1907, Lise would leave for Berlin, Germany to study at the Friedric-Wilhelm-Universitat where women faced more discrimination than in Vienna.

She would meet Otto Hahn, a chemist, and the two would collaborate for nearly 30 years. They achieved important results in the new field of nuclear physics.

The two would discover that when a radioactinium atom expels an alpha particle, the daughter atom recoils with enough force that would send it recoiling from the parent atom. They showed that scientists could purposely reproduce this in the laboratory.

In their second major discovery, she and Otto would discover a new radioactive element, protactinium (Pa), isolating it from pitchblende. Otto’s name would appear as “senior author” on the paper.

She wrote articles under the name “L. Meitner” for extra money since publications refused to accept articles by female authors. She would become the first woman professor in Germany, a great achievement especially considering that she was not paid for her work early in her career.

She would build the first Wilson cloud chamber in Berlin to observe the behavior of atoms and their nuclei. Invented by CTR Wilson around the 1900 for the study of clouds and mist, the cloud chamber was a sealed chamber filled with moist, dense cloud-like air. As the particles moved, they formed visible tracks in the mist. The equipment would be displayed at Deutsches Museum, a science and technology museum in Munich, for 35 years without mentioning her name.

After 31 years in Germany, where the conditions for Jews worsened, Lise would leave for Holland. There through written correspondences, she continued her collaboration with Otto Hahn in determining whether a uranium atom could be split… the discovery of fission. Their calculations proved that the mass of the two new atoms would be less than that of the original atom because some would be burned in the process.

In 1944, Otto Hahn would be awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. Lise was not recognized. Niels Bohr would later nominate Lise and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch for the Nobel Prize in physics in 1946, then for chemistry in 1947 and 1948 but never received enough votes from the committee.

In 1966, she, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman would be awarded the US Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Prize for their contribution to the discovery of fission.

She died in her sleep October 27, 1968, short of her 90th birthday. The Society for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) proposed that element 190 (Meitnererium, Mt) be named after her in 1994.

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Works cited:

  • Barron, Rachel Stiffler. Lise Meitner, Discoverer of Nuclear Fission. Morgan Reynolds, 2000.
  • Rife, Patricia. “Lise Meitner.” Jewish Women's Archive.
  • Sime, Ruth Lewin. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Univ. of California Press, 1996.

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