Forgotten Science Heroes: Lise Meitner


There are not many life stories that the discovery of nuclear fission hasn’t left an indelible mark upon. Yet there is only one life story, that began on the 7th of November, 1878, in Vienna, Austria, that can claim rightful ownership of that discovery.

The story of Lise Meitner’s relationship with nuclear fission begins with a timid Jewish woman trying to cut her way through a German university’s science department – a department that had never welcomed women, and would soon expel all their Jewish students and colleges. There were countless appeals by the scientific community to get Meitner out of Germany and away from the Nazis as the war began to take hold, all of which she would decline, until a Dutch physicists had to force her onto a train out of Germany at a time when Jewish people were no longer allowed to leave. It was said that she cried throughout the entire journey, petrified of what may happen if she were caught.

Meitner wasn’t caught on that train, and had managed to escape to Kungalv, Sweden. Her team however was still working on her project in Germany which had the explicit intention of increasing the size of the uranium nucleus by bombarding it with neutrons. Meitner demanded that she be kept up-to-date with all that was happening at the lab via letter, but her team soon hit a quagmire and, without her expert interpretation of the data, was lost.

The team wrote to Meitner explaining that their experiments were yielding radium, a much smaller element than uranium. After Meitner told them to check again, they wrote telling her that the experiment was now yielding barium, an even smaller element. The team in Germany were looking for something much larger, yet they were finding something much smaller. They believed they were making errors in the readings. But Meitner thought otherwise.  

To contextualise this, we must remember that Einstein had said that, ‘The chances of getting more energy out of a system than what you put in, is the same as going to a desert island where there are no birds, shooting aimlessly into the air, and killing a rare bird’.

The genius of Lise Meitner was to take the results at face value where others were applying preconceived ideology. After diligently reading all the information at hand she noted that the sum of the resulting atoms was less than the original mass; some mass had been lost. By multiplying the mass lost by the speed of light squared, she discovered what was happening: E=MC squared.

They had split the atom.

No. Lise Meitner had split the atom.

Out of all the sadness and pain that proliferates the story of Lise Meitner, the saddest paragraph is that which mentions Otto Hahn, her one true love.

She had fallen for him when she first started working at the university as part of his team. It wasn’t long before she was soon heading her own department and making important discoveries both in collaboration with and independent of Hahn. She pulled Hahn and one other, a chemist by the name of Fritz Strassmann into collaboration to work on what would become the discovery of nuclear fission. But after the war, Hahn would clarify that Meitner had absolutely no role in the discovery of nuclear fission.  

Not only did he steal her love and never return it, he also stole her Nobel Prize.

[Peter Dobbins]

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