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Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

Meitner circa 1900
BornNovember 17, 1878
DiedOctober 27, 1968
Known forNuclear fission

Lise Meitner (November 17,[1] 1878 – October 27, 1968) was an Austrian born, later Swedish physicist who studied radioactivity and nuclear physics.

Lise Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner is often mentioned as one of the most glaring examples of scientific achievement that was ostensibly overlooked by the Nobel committee.[2][3][4] A 1997 Physics Today study concluded that Meitner's omission was "a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist" from the Nobel.[5]


Early years

Lise Meitner was born into a Jewish family as the third of eight children in Vienna, 2nd district (Leopoldstadt). Her father was one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria.[4] She shortened her birthdate from November 17, 1878 to November 7, 1878. She also shortened her name from Elise to Lise. It is not known why she did so.[6] She was the second woman to earn a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna.[4]

Scientific career

In 1917, she and chemist Otto Hahn discovered the first long-lived isotope of the element protactinium. That year, she was given her own physics section at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry.[4] In 1923, she discovered the cause, known as the Auger effect, of the emission from surfaces of electrons with 'signature' energies. The effect is named for Pierre Victor Auger, a French scientist who independently discovered the effect in 1925.

In 1930, Lise Meitner taught a seminar on nuclear physics and chemistry with Leó Szilárd. With the discovery of the neutron in the early 1930s, speculation arose in the scientific community that it might be possible to create elements heavier than uranium (atomic number 92) in the laboratory. A scientific race began between Ernest Rutherford in Britain, Irene Joliot-Curie in France, Enrico Fermi in Italy, and the Meitner-Hahn team in Berlin. At the time, all concerned believed that this was abstract research for the probable honor of a Nobel prize. None suspected that this research would culminate in nuclear weapons.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Meitner was acting director of the Institute for Chemistry. Although she was protected by her Austrian citizenship, all other Jewish scientists, including her nephew Otto Frisch, Haber, Leo Szilard and many other eminent figures, were dismissed or forced to resign from their posts - most of them emigrating. Her response was to say nothing and bury herself in her work. In 1946 she acknowledged that "It was not only stupid but also very wrong that I did not leave at once."[7]

After the Anschluss, her situation became desperate. In July 1938, Meitner, with help from the Dutch physicists Coster and Fokker, escaped to Holland. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She reached safety, though without her possessions. Meitner later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. Before she left, Otto Hahn had given her a diamond ring he had inherited from his mother : this was to be used to bribe the frontier guards if required. It was not required, and Lise's nephew's wife now proudly wears this ring. Meitner was extremely lucky to escape, as Kurt Hess, a chemist who was an avid Nazi, had informed the authorities that she was about to flee. However, unknown friends only checked after they knew Lise was safe. An appointment at Groningen University did not come through, and she went instead to Stockholm, where she took up a post at Manne Siegbahn's laboratory, despite the difficulty caused by Siegbahn's prejudice against women in science. Here she established a working relationship with Niels Bohr, who travelled regularly between Copenhagen and Stockholm. She continued to correspond with Hahn and other German scientists.[8]

Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments; in this regard they subsequently exchanged a series of letters. The experiments which provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin. This surviving correspondence indicates that Hahn believed nuclear fission was impossible. She was the first person to realize that the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts: uranium nuclei had split to form barium and krypton, accompanied by the ejection of several neutrons and a large amount of energy (the latter two products accounting for the loss in mass).

A letter from Bohr, commenting on the fact that the amount of energy released when he bombarded uranium atoms was far larger than had been predicted by calculations based on a non-fissile core, had sparked the above inspiration in December of 1938. Hahn claimed that his chemistry had been solely responsible for the discovery, although he had been unable to explain the results.

It was politically impossible for the exiled Meitner to publish jointly with Hahn in 1939. Hahn published the chemical findings in January 1939 and Meitner published the physical explanation two months later with her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch, and named the process "nuclear fission".[9]

Meitner recognized the possibility for a chain reaction of enormous explosive potential. This report had an electrifying effect on the scientific community. Because this could be used as a weapon, and since the knowledge was in German hands, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner together jumped into action, persuading Albert Einstein, who had the celebrity, to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warning letter; this led directly to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. Meitner refused an offer to work on the project at Los Alamos, declaring "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"[10]

Einstein himself respected Meitner and called her "our Marie Curie."[4]

Awards and honors

  In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. In the opinion of many scientists, Meitner should have shared the prize, and Otto Hahn gave full honour to Meitner in the Nobel Lecture 1946. However, in 1966 Hahn, Fritz Strassmann and Meitner together were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. On a visit to the USA in 1946 she received American press celebrity treatment as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse." She was honored as "Woman of the Year" by the National Women's Press Club (USA) in 1946, and received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949. Meitner was suggested to receive the prize three times. An even rarer honour was given to her with naming Element 109 Meitnerium in her honour.[11][12][4]

Later years

After the war, Meitner, while acknowledging her own moral failing in staying in Germany from 1933 to 1938, was bitterly critical of Hahn and other German scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis and done nothing to protest against the crimes of Hitler's regime. Referring to the leading German scientist Werner Heisenberg, she said: "Heisenberg and many millions with him should be forced to see these camps and the martyred people." She wrote to Hahn:


"You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered... [it is said that] first you betrayed your friends, then your children in that you let them stake their lives on a criminal war - and finally that you betrayed Germany itself, because when the war was already quite hopeless, you did not once arm yourselves against the senseless destruction of Germany."[13]

Meitner became a Swedish citizen in 1949, but moved to Britain in 1960 and died in Cambridge in 1968. As was her wish, she was buried in the village of Bramley in Hampshire, at St. James parish church, close to her beloved younger brother Walter, who had died in 1964. Her nephew Otto Robert Frisch composed the inscription on her headstone. It reads "Lise Meitner : a physicist who never lost her humanity."

Further reading

  • Frisch, Otto Robert (ed.) (1959). Trends in Atomic Physics: Essays Dedicated to Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue on the Occasion of their 80th Birthday. New York: Interscience. 
  • Rife, Patricia (1999). Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Birkhäuser. 
  • Lewin Sime, Ruth (1996). Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08906-5. 
  • Yount, Lisa (1996). Twentieth Century Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0-8160-3173-8. 
  • Hahn, Dietrich (ed.) (2005). Lise Meitner: Erinnerungen an Otto Hahn. Stuttgart: S. Hirzel. ISBN 978-3-7776-1380-2. 

See also

  • List of Austrian scientists
  • Meitnerium
  • Hans-Hermann Hupfeld


  1. ^ Due to an accounting error, many documents stated November 7, which is also the date Meitner used herself.
  2. ^ Judson, Horace. "No Nobel Prize for Whining", New York Times, 2003-10-20. Retrieved on 2007-08-03. 
  3. ^ Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann. Chemistry Heritage. Retrieved on 2007-08-03.
  4. ^ a b c d e f The Woman Behind the Bomb. Washington Post. Retrieved on 2007-08-03.
  5. ^ "REVELATIONS CONCERNING LISA MEITNER AND THE NOBEL PRIZE", Science Week. Retrieved on 2007-08-03. 
  6. ^ Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 66. Also see [[1].
  7. ^ Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 207-13
  8. ^ Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 214-15
  9. ^ Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction, Nature, volume 143, 239-240([2])
  10. ^ Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (University of California Press, 1996), 305
  11. ^ Hahn, Otto (1946-12-13). ['meitner' From the natural transmutations of uranium to its artificial fission. Nobel Lecture.]. Nobel Foundation. Retrieved on 2007-09-24.
  12. ^ Hardy, Anne (2004-03-04). Otto Hahn – Entdecker der Kernspaltung. (de). Pry Physik, Wiley Interscience GmbH. Retrieved on 2007-09-24.
  13. ^ Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 411

NAME Meitner, Lise
SHORT DESCRIPTION Phycisist; Scientist
DATE OF BIRTH January 17 1878(1878-01-17)
PLACE OF BIRTH Vienna, Austria
DATE OF DEATH October 27 1968
PLACE OF DEATH Cambridge, United Kingdom
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Lise_Meitner". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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