Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Lise Meitner

Nuclear Physicist - The First Person to Identify Nuclear Fission

Meitner was born in Vienna, 3rd of eight children in a wealthy Jewish family (although she became a Lutheran as an early adult and objected to accounts after the war that identified her as Jewish). Her father, Phillip Meitner was a lawyer.

She struggled to receive an education worthy of h
er keen mind (girls were not permitted into high schools in Vienna). Instead she trained as a teacher and then with a private tutor to cram in the learning required for university entry when the Austrian Universities finally accepted women. Despite these difficulties, from 1901 to 1907, she studied under Ludwig Boltzmann at the University of Vienna.

In 1907, she moved to Berlin where she and Otto Hahn began a long running and Highly productive collaboration, studying radioactivity – her from the physics point of his, him from a chemist's. Among other successes of their collaboration was the 1918 discovery of protactinium. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she managed to keep her lab free of radioactive contamination just by taking simple measures, like using sheets of paper to wipe the hands with before touching anything, especially doorknobs.

Fleeing the Nazis in 1938, Meitner moved to Sweden, but continued to work with Hahn, meeting secretly in Copenhagen and exchanging a series of letters. During this time, the experiments that first provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin. Although Hahn claimed full credit for the discovery. Due to the German political situation, he could not have coauthored a paper with Meitner – who was still Jewish in the eyes of the State – whether or not he wanted to. However, the surviving correspondence shows that some of the credit must belong to Meitner – without her explanations and interpretations, Hahn would not realized that fission had occurred at all in his experiments.

Following the publication of Hahn's findings, Meitner and Otto Frisch, her nephew, published their physical explanation, coining the term “nuclear fission”. Despite her seminal contributions to the science of fission, Meitner refused an offer to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos, not wanting to become involved with the military implications of her discoveries.

In 1944, Hahn was awarded the 1944 chemistry Nobel Prize fro his discovery of nuclear fission – an award that most believe Metiner should have shared. Whether the award was influenced by Hahn's claims of sole discovery, Anti-semitic politics or an antipathy towards women held by some of the Nobel committee (notably Siegbahn) is still a point of speculation. Some degree of amends was made after that war, when Meitner received a number of prestigious awards: 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, 1949. In 1992, element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.

Einstein called Meitner 'The German Madame Curie'. She was always unassuming: 'I am not important: Why is everybody making such a fuss over me?' One story told about her, concerns a Hollywood plan to make a movie about the development of fission and the atomic bomb. She declared to a studio executive that she 'would rather walk the length of Broadway in the nude than see herself in a movie'.

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