Wednesday Geek Woman: Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission

The Wednesday Geek Woman series is mostly on hiatus. Remaining WGW posts are appearing sporadically.

This is a guest post by Shauna, a psychologist, programmer, writer and blogger.

Portrait of Lise Meitner, 1900

Portrait of Lise Meitner, 1900 (public domain image)

Lise Meitner was born into an affluent Jewish family in Austria in 1878. She faced much institutionalized sexism: she was not allowed to attend any universities and had to secure a private education, was the only woman allowed to attend Max Planck’s lectures, and was forced to work without salary, as a “guest”, until the age of 35. Thirty years later, she would be passed over for a Nobel prize in favor of her two male colleagues. These were not her only struggles, however. A Jew in Austria during World War II, and a nuclear physicist whose work led to the creation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, she spent much of her life wrestling with the moral implications of her decisions and her duties to others.

In 1907, after convincing Max Planck to take her on as an assistant, Meitner met Otto Hahn, a talented chemist who would become her close collaborator for the next thirty years. Together they found several isotopes (atoms of an element with different numbers of neutrons) and Meitner, on her own, discovered the Auger effect: the release of energy when an inner-shell electron vacancy is filled through the ejection of another electron from the atom. Although Meitner discovered this phenomenon and published it in 1922, the effect was named after and generally credited to Pierre Auger, who discovered it independently in 1923.

In the early 1930s, many notable physicists, including Meitner and Hahn, began bombarding uranium with neutrons in an attempt to create an element heavier than uranium. Although Ida Noddack – another pioneering female physicist – suggested in 1934 that bombarding uranium might occasionally result in nuclear fission, it wasn’t until December 1938 that Hahn discovered experimental proof. Six months earlier, the Jewish Meitner had been forced to flee Austria when it was annexed by Nazi Germany. She continued to collaborate with Hahn from afar, exchanging letters and even meeting clandestinely. She played a vital role, both before and after her escape: she and her nephew Otto Frisch were the first to provide a theory for how a nucleus could split into smaller parts, they discovered why there are no naturally occurring stable elements larger than uranium, and she was the first to apply Einstein’s equation, e=mc2, to predict the massive amounts of energy that would be released by nuclear fission. Despite all her contributions, the Nazis refused to let Hahn credit the exiled, Jewish Meitner in the papers he published. In 1945 Hahn was awarded a Nobel prize for the discovery of nuclear fission.

After leaving Austria, Meitner was offered an opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project, which she adamantly refused, declaring: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” She was reportedly surprised and deeply saddened by the use of nuclear weapons on Japan. However, her remorse was focused on her decision to stay in Germany until 1938, and on the decisions of her colleagues to stay in Germany throughout the war. 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 Meitner had difficulty sleeping for years after learning about the true nature of the Nazi concentration camps.

In a world not plagued by war, antisemitism and sexism, Meitner’s contributions might have been better acknowledged. Yet despite these obstacles, those contributions were immense. And although Meitner was passed over for a Nobel several times, she has been given an even rarer honor: to find it, look in the back of your chemistry text book, at the periodic table of the elements — element 109, meitnerium.

Wikipedia: Lise Meitner
Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner, a life in physics (biographical book)
Wired: Lise Meitner, “Our Madame Curie’

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