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 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. Let’s delve more into the life and achievements of this wonderful woman!
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, he still supported her.
He advised his daughter to get a teaching qualification first to 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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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, 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. They also studied nuclear isomerism and beta decay.
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, she left Germany and moved to Sweden for safety. There, she joined Manne Siegbahn’s Institute in Stockholm. However, despite being a brilliant scientist, she never seemed welcome there. It is widely believed that Siegbahn’s prejudice against women in science was the reason behind the cold treatment.
In January 1939, Lise joined her nephew Otto Frisch, and together they came up with the term “fission.” Fission is the generation of an enormous amount of energy that occurs after an atomic nucleus splits. The duo became the first one to explain the process in a paper published in the journal Nature on February 11, 1939.
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 the grounds of humanity. Nevertheless, after World War II ended, Lise was dubbed as “the mother of the atomic bomb,” even though she had nothing to do with the bomb directly.
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 to discover nuclear fission, and Meitner’s contributions were completely overlooked. However, in 1966, Meitner and all of the collaborators, Hahn and Strassmann, were awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize.
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.
Before you go, make sure you also read:
- From statistical mechanics to suicide: The tragic story of Ludwig Boltzmann
- Scientists who built the first atomic bomb
- 10 bone-chilling facts about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings
Editor at ‘The Secrets Of The Universe’, I have completed my Master’s in Physics from India and I am soon going to join Institute of Space Sciences, Barcelona for my doctoral studies on Exoplanets. I love to write about a plethora of topics concerned with planetary sciences, observational astrophysics, quantum mechanics and atomic physics, along with the advancements taking place in the space industry.