Lise Meitner – mother of the atomic bomb?

Another overlooked female scientist this week – Lise Meitner – and one that appeals to me as a periodic table geek. She’s one of only two women to have an element named after her, the other being Marie Curie. So why isn’t she a household name?

Born in Vienna in 1878, Meitner was brought up in a large Jewish family. Female education was restricted in Austria, so she didn’t go to university until the relatively late age of 23 where she realised that physics was her passion, calling it a ‘battle for ultimate truth.’ She gained a PhD, only the second woman in Vienna University to do so, and went to Berlin to continue her studies. For the first year she worked in a cupboard next to the lab without pay, but when other organisations offered her work, she was given a permanent position, and began a thirty-year collaboration with a chemist, Otto Hahn, working on radioactive substances. In 1918 they discovered the element protactinium, and became part of the race to create an element heavier than uranium – at that time the heaviest known element in nature.

Meitner became a Protestant in 1908, but this meant nothing when Hitler came to power. Forced to flee with only ten marks in her pocket after the German annexation of Austria in 1938, she made it as far as Stockholm, where she was given laboratory space to continue her work at Manne Siegbahn’s institute. But Siegbahn wasn’t keen on women in science and didn’t invite her to join his group, nor did he give her any technical support, equipment or even her own set of keys to the laboratory. Meitner kept in touch with Hahn, and together they worked on neutron bombardment of uranium, in the hope of producing a larger element. In November 1938, they met secretly in Copenhagen, and she suggested further tests on a uranium product they thought was the expected heavier element radium, but turned out to be the much lighter element barium. Meitner realised that the neutrons weren’t sticking to uranium, but in fact breaking it into smaller fragments. This led them to understand and name the phenomenon of nuclear fission.

But Meitner’s exile cost her the recognition she deserved for this vital scientific breakthrough. In 1939, Hahn published the work without listing Meitner as co-author, and afterwards maintained that the discovery of nuclear fission was his alone. The probable explanation for this was that he was part of Nazi Germany and Meitner was an exiled ex-Jew. As Meitner said: ‘I am part of his suppressed past.’ In 1945, Hahn received the Nobel prize for chemistry, but Meitner’s equally important role was overlooked. The ‘Nobel mistake’ was never corrected. But to some extent, justice has been done: 1992, element no 109 was named Meitnerium. To date, there is no Hahnium.

Albert Einstein followed Meitner’s work and realised its implications, and in 1939 wrote to President Roosevelt, expressing his fears about its potential use in atomic bombs. Meitner became incorrectly known as the ‘mother of the atomic bomb’ but she refused to play any part in the Manhattan project that produced the first bombs. After the war, she helped produced one of the first nuclear reactors.

Meitner retired to Cambridge, England in 1960, and died in 1968. The inscription on her headstone reads “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity”.

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Lucrezia Borgia – a pawn in her family’s political games?

I’m sticking with the theme of infamy this week. Lucrezia Borgia was born in 1480, the daughter of the future Pope Alexander VI and one of his mistresses, and her name has become synonymous with scandal. But history may have been hard on her. Her father and brother were the true family villains.

Her father Rodrigo, a man of huge ambition and no morals, was arranging Lucrezia’s marriage to an influential nobleman when she was just eleven, but the nobleman broke the contract. A year later, Rodrigo became Pope Alexander VI and abused the position from day one. He made Cesare, Lucrezia’s 17 year-old brother, an archbishop, soon afterwards a cardinal; her other brother became a Duke. And at thirteen, Lucrezia was married off to Giovanni Sforza, an older man and member of one of the most powerful families in Italy. But within four years, the marriage ended acrimoniously, after the Borgias decided they no longer needed an alliance with the Sforzas. So they tried to get Giovanni to divorce her, and arrange a more profitable marriage . Giovanni refused, and started spreading rumours that Alexander and Cesare were having incestuous relationships in Lucrezia. There’s no actual evidence of this, even though Cesare seems to have been a little too fond of his sister.

Even though Giovanni claimed that he’d had sex with Lucrezia over a thousand times, he agreed to have the marriage annulled on the ground of nonconsummation due to his impotency. In return, Giovanni kept Lucrezia’s dowry. He was lucky to get out of the marriage alive; the same year, Cesare had his brother murdered and his body thrown in the Tiber to inherit his title. Lucrezia also participated in a Vatican ceremony that attested that she was a virgin. It wasn’t the best time for her to announce she was pregnant. It was rumoured that Cesare or Alexander was the father, but a Spaniard, Pedro Caldes claimed paternity. His body was the next to be fished out of the river, along with that of a chambermaid who’d helped them conduct their affair. 

Lucrezia was soon married off again, this time to the 17 year-old prince of Aragon, Alfonso. Although Lucrezia and Alfonso were blissfully happy, this marriage was even less successful, not helped by the jealousy of Cesare and Alfonso outliving his political usefulness. Having survived a stabbing the month before, hubby no 2 was strangled on the orders of Cesare. Soon after this, Lucrezia became papal secretary, and it was around this time of the sex parties at the Vatican that gave the Borgias their infamy. But most historians agree that Lucrezia didn’t take part. In 1501 her family arranged let another marriage for her, to the son of a duke in Ferrara.

In 1503, Alexander died of malaria, putting an end to the Borgia’s power. But the job of the wife of a duke’s heir was to make babies, and Lucrezia was a dutiful wife (well, mostly; she did have an affair with a poet). She spent most her remaining years pregnant, having several miscarriages, at least one stillbirth and two children that died in infancy, as well as five children that survived infancy. She was a patron of the arts and a businesswoman and in later years devoted herself to helping to poor. When she died after childbirth aged 39, she was mourned by the whole city of Ferrara. So it seems to me, there may be two sides to this story. Perhaps she was guilty of not much more than excessive loyalty to a pretty appalling family.