At the core of the nuclear family
Name: Lise Meitner
Fields: Nuclear physics
Claim to fame: First to identify nuclear fission correctly
With her atom-splitting success in cracking the secret of nuclear fission, Lise Meitner (1878-1968) triggered the chain reaction which sparked the Atomic Age. Regarded by some as the most significant scientist of her generation, her life was a mix of scientific triumph and personal tragedy during one of the darkest chapters of Europe’s history.
Lise Meitner was the third of eight children in a liberal Viennese Jewish family. Her scientific curiosity was first piqued as a child when she tried to figure out why it was that a puddle of water with a bit of oil in it was filled with colours. As a teenager, she longed for new challenges. She summed up this restlessness as: “Life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty.” Her life as a nuclear physicist was to prove neither easy nor empty.
After completing the period of education allowed to girls, Meitner struggled for nine years to enter the halls of academia – this period (1892-1901) she later dubbed the “lost years”. After earning a teaching certificate, she began preparations for the university entrance exam with a private tutor – squeezing eight years of study into two in order to make up for lost time. In 1901, she enrolled at Vienna University.
Germany’s Madame Curie
Over the coming decades, Meitner was to establish a reputation for herself as one of the world’s foremost nuclear physicists, working alongside some of the best scientists of the age, including Max Planck, the founder of quantum theory, and Otto Hahn, the renowned nuclear chemist. Albert Einstein called her “our Madame Curie”.
Despite all her scientific triumphs, Meitner’s later life was marred by personal tragedy. After some three decades of accomplished academic work in Berlin, Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, five years after Adolf Hitler came to power. After short stays in the Netherlands and Denmark, she ended up in Stockholm, a relative scientific backwater at the time. “I have none of my scientific equipment. For me, this is harder than anything else,” she wrote to her lifelong partner in science, Hahn.
The nucleus of a great idea
Lise Meitner’s scientific career truly took off when she entered Vienna University in 1901. Fascinated by reports of Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium, she began investigating radioactivity – an early step on the road to her becoming a nuclear physicist.
After gaining her PhD in 1905, she turned down an offer to work in a lamp factory and, in 1907, with the financial support of her father, moved to Berlin at a time when Germany was the scientific centre of the world. There, Max Planck – whom she grew to adore for his “rare honesty of mind” – allowed her to attend his lectures and, in 1913, granted her an assistantship.
At about the same time, her longstanding scientific partnership with Otto Hahn began. In their first years together, they discovered several new isotopes. She finally gained a salaried position at the newly established Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut (which was later renamed after Max Planck) shortly before World War I broke out in 1914. There, she was not allowed to use the front door and began her work in a wooden shed instead of the laboratory. During the war, she served as an X-ray nurse, as Marie Curie did on the other side of the front line.
In 1926, Meitner became Germany’s first female physics professor (albeit an extraordinarius) and she and Hahn were nominated frequently for the Nobel Prize. With the discovery of the neutron in the early 1930s, speculation began that it might be possible to create elements heavier than uranium in the laboratory. However, no one suspected that the atom could be split into lighter elements, a process now known as fission, which she discovered while in exile with her nephew Otto Frisch and in correspondence with Hahn and her former team in Berlin. This marked the birth of the nuclear age.
Having lived through the ‘golden age’ of physics, Lise Meitner described the exciting developments she experienced in her chosen field as “a magic[al], musical accompaniment to my life”.
Meitner’s crowning achievement was the discovery of nuclear fission. While others searched for heavier elements than uranium, she was probably the first to realise that in these experiments the atom was actually being split.
There is a general consensus among physicists and historians of science that Meitner should have been awarded the Nobel Prize for her explanation of fission. “What does it matter that Lise Meitner did not take direct part in the ‘discovery’… [she] was the intellectual leader of our team,” argued Fritz Strassmann, a key member of Meitner and Hahn’s research group.
Rewriting the laws of physics
The unprecedented energy the fi ssion process unlocked was to mark the birth of the nuclear age, with all the good and evil this entailed. Despite moving to a relative scientific backwater after her escape from Germany, Meitner turned down an Allied offer to work on the Atomic Bomb. “It is an unfortunate accident that this discovery came about in time of war. I myself have not in any way worked on the smashing of the atom with the idea of producing death-dealing weapons,” she said in a newspaper interview.
In recognition of Meitner’s contribution to science, she received numerous awards. A German research group even gave her name to a new element, meitnerium, in 1992. “[Meitner] should be honoured as the most significant woman scientist of this century,” believed Peter Armbruster, the physicist leading the team.