Lise Meitner

The Inspiring Story Of A Nuclear Scientist Who “Never Lost Her Humanity”.

Whenever it comes to talking about women who didn’t get the well-deserved credit for their scientific contributions, Lise Meitner’s name is always among the first ones to make it to this discussion. Always known as “A physicist who never lost her humanity”,  for opposing the idea of the atomic bomb, Lise Meitner gave the first-ever theoretical explanation of the nuclear fission process. So today on her 142nd birth anniversary, let’s delve more into the life and achievements of this wonderful woman!

Lise Meitner (Image:Wikipedia)
Lise Meitner

Early life:

Born on November 7, 1878, into a relatively wealthy and cultured family in Vienna, Lise was the third child of Philipp Meitner and Hedwig Skovran. Lise was an academically inclined child. She enjoyed mathematics, and her father employed private tutors to help her learn more. Apart from academics,  Lise Meitner also enjoyed playing the piano and finding out how the world works.

No school for girls to pursue higher studies

Although Lise was an exceptionally bright child, back then in the 1800s, high schools in Austria didn’t allow girls to step in. Eventually,  like all other Austrian girls, formal schooling ended for Lise at the age of 14 and she wasn’t permitted to attend a grammar school to prepare for a college education.

In the following years, Lise stayed at home, read books, and played piano. One fine day, she finally gathered the courage to ask her father if she could take a science degree at the University of Vienna. Although her father knew that it would not be easy, still he supported her.

He advised his daughter to get a teaching qualification first so that she could stand on her own feet. As per her father’s words, Meitner began working for a teaching qualification in French, which she completed in 1899. After that, her father hired a private tutor to help her prepare for the university entrance exam, which she successfully cracked in the summer of 1901.

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Higher Education

Lise Meitner matriculated at the University of Vienna in October 1901. During her academic years, Lise was highly inspired by her brilliant teacher Ludwig Boltzmann. Meitner always held the classes taken by Boltzmann in the highest esteem. Consequently, inspired by her teacher, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, she studied physics and focused her research on radioactivity. In 1905, she became the second woman to receive a doctorate degree at the university.

Lise Meitner’s Research Journey:

In the early 20th century, there were very few research opportunities available for women. Meitner wrote to Marie Curie asking for a research position in her Paris laboratory, but unfortunately, no work was available. Then,  she turned to Max Planck at the University of Berlin, asking if she could attend his lectures for a semester. Surprisingly, Planck allowed her to sit in on his lectures. It was a rare gesture as before then, he had rejected any women wanting to attend his lectures. Things went smoothly and Meitner later became Planck’s assistant.

Later, Lise Meitner worked extensively with the German chemist Otto Hahn, who is referred to as the father of nuclear chemistry. Meitner and Hahn together discovered several isotopes. They remained research partners for around 30 years. During their research, they became the first pair to isolate the isotope protactinium-231. The pair also studied nuclear isomerism and beta decay.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in 1912
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in 1912

Lise Meitner discovered the phenomenon of radiationless transition in 1923. Unfortunately, she didn’t receive the well-deserved credit for the finding as the phenomenon came to be known as the Auger effect after it was discovered by Pierre Victor Auger, a French scientist about two years later.

In 1938, Germany annexed Austria. As Lise Meitner was born in Vienna, so for the sake of safety, Lise left Germany and moved to Sweden. There, she joined Manne Siegbahn’s Institute in Stockholm. However, despite being the brilliant scientist that she was,  she never seemed welcome there. It is widely believed that Siegbahn’s prejudice against women in science was the reason behind the cold treatment that she received.

In January 1939, Lise joined her nephew Otto Frisch and together they came up with the term “fission.” Fission basically represents the phenomenon of the generation of an enormous amount of energy that occurs after an atomic nucleus splits. The duo became the first one to provide an explanation of the process in a paper that got published in the journal Nature on February 11, 1939.

The Inspiring Story Of A Nuclear Scientist Who "Never Lost Her Humanity". 2
The process of Nuclear Fission (Image: Lindau-nobel.org)

Soon after the publication, people realized that fission was actually a source of great destructive energy. This led scientists to work in the direction of the atomic bomb in the famous Manhattan Project. Meitner was approached to work on the project,  which she turned down on grounds of humanity. Nevertheless, after World War II ended, Lise was dubbed as “the mother of the atomic bomb,” even though she had nothing directly to do with the bomb.

Undoubtedly, Meitner’s research was highly revolutionary, still, she either got no credit or just very little acclaim. In 1945, Hahn received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission, and Meitner’s contributions were completely overlooked. However,  in 1966, Meitner along with all of the collaborators, Hahn, Strassmann was awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize for their work. 

Meitner died on October 27, 1968, in Cambridge, England. In 1992, the heaviest known element in the universe, element 109, was named meitnerium (Mt) in her honor. Looking at her scientific accomplishments,  Lise Meitner is rightly known as the “most significant woman scientist of the 20th Century”. Indeed, another prominent inspiration to look up to.

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2 thoughts on “The Inspiring Story Of A Nuclear Scientist Who “Never Lost Her Humanity”.”

  1. She was and is a great and genius nuclear scientist as well as great human after Marie curie. I have book on her life and achievements. She deserved a lot more and was under-rated. She was nominated several times (around 15 times if am not wrong) for Noble Prize but never won it.

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