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Wednesday's Women in STEM: Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was an Austrian-born physicist who, along with scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, shared the Enrico Fermi Award (1966) for their cooperative research that led to the discovery of uranium fission. Meitner received her doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1906, and in 1907 she attended Max Planck's lectures in Berlin, where she joined Hahn in radiation research.

While Meitner was celebrated after World War II as "the mother of the atomic bomb," she had no role in it, and her true scientific contribution became, if anything, more obscure in subsequent years. A new biography by Ruth Lewin Sime tells Meitner's often paradoxical story and sets forth the daily sequence of events that constituted the discovery of fission and, subsequently, the "forgetting" of the role of one discoverer.

Lise Meitner was the third of eight children of a Viennese Jewish family. In 1908, two of Lise's sisters became Catholics and she herself became a Protestant. While conscientious, these conversions counted for nothing after Hitler came to power. Owing to Austrian restrictions on female education, Lise Meitner only entered the University of Vienna in 1901. With Ludwig Boltzmann as her teacher, she learned quickly that physics was her calling. Years later, Meitner's nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, wrote that "Boltzmann gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost."

Doctorate in hand, she went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck. She began to work with a chemist, both doing the physics and the chemistry of radioactive substances. The collaboration continued for 30 years, each heading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Together and independently they achieved important results in the new field of nuclear physics, competing with Irène Curie, Frédéric Joliot, and other foreign groups. During their three-decade collaboration, she and Hahn were among the first to isolate the isotope protactinium-231, examined nuclear isomerism and beta decay, and investigated the products of uranium neutron bombardment (together with Strassmann) in the 1930s.

She fled Nazi Germany in the summer of 1938 to settle in Sweden because she was Jewish. Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch elucidated the physical characteristics of this division after Hahn and Strassmann demonstrated that barium appears in neutron-bombarded uranium.

In January 1939, Meitner proposed the term fission (which Frisch elicited from American biophysicist William Arnold) for the process. Although some have contended that Meitner deserved a share of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, Hahn got it in 1944 for finding nuclear fission. She was invited to work on the Manhattan Project (1942–45) in the United States during this time. Meitner, on the other hand, was opposed to the atomic bomb and turned down the opportunity. In 1960, she moved to England to retire. She died eight years later, and her tombstone reads, "A physicist who never lost her humanity." Her name was later given to the chemical element meitnerium.

BY: Tauba Ashrafi


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