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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