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Lise Meitner: A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

Hello everyone! I'm Tina and this is Women Weekly, where I post about one wonderful woman in the STEM field every Friday. Today's post is about a scientist who dedicated her life to doing what she loved and using it for good, no matter the situation – Lise Meitner.

 

Lise Meitner was born in 1878 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, into a Jewish family. Lise's parents held progressive views on education, making sure that all 8 of their children were properly schooled. At the time, women were banned from secondary education, but after the ban was lifted, Lise began studying physics at the University of Vienna and managed to become the second woman to earn a PhD at the university.

Financially backed by her father, Lise moved to Berlin and started attending lectures of physicist Max Planck at the Friedrich Wilhelm University. She was introduced to chemist Otto Hahn and they soon began working together, Lise using his woodshop-turned-laboratory to do at least some research since as a woman, she wasn't allowed in any of the proper laboratories. Lise, together with Hahn, moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, he was leading the radiochemistry section, where she worked unpaid for a time, but later managed to get a position ranked equally as his.

Soon, World War I broke out and had Lise working as an X-ray nurse-technician. After the war, she got back to work, researching an element between thorium and uranium, that was briefly discovered as 'brevium' in 1913. In 1918, Lise published her findings, having isolated both the mother isotope and its actinium daughter product, and named the element Protactinium (Pa). Lise spent some time in Sweden, studying X-ray spectroscopy, and with her acquired knowledge, she described a physical phenomenon when an excited atom ejects an electron from its outer shell as a result of trying to relax its excited state. This effect was later named after P.V. Auger, although he discovered it after Lise.

In 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, forcing Lise to flee Germany for Sweden. The process was difficult, but luckily, Lise could count on her colleagues from abroad.

Spending Christmas in Sweden with her nephew, physicist Otto Frisch, Lise received a letter from Hahn, claiming that some of the product of the bombardment of uranium with neutrons was barium. The difference in atomic mass between uranium and barium was too large for this claim to make sense in the context of any known methods of radioactive decay at the time, but Lise had an open mind. Together with Frisch, they came up with and mathematically proved the theory of a uranium nucleus splitting into two, in sum smaller nuclei, and emitting a large amount of energy. Further research was done together with other scientists, naming this process nuclear fission.

This discovery directly led to the initiation of the Manhattan Project. Lise was invited to work on it together with her nephew, but she declined, strongly refusing to have anything to do with the development of a bomb. Instead, she spent her time working on the design and construction of R1, Sweden's first nuclear reactor. Lise and Frisch contributed majorly to Hahn's discovery of nuclear fission, yet Hahn was the only one to receive the Nobel Prize for it. Scientists later recognized their contributions and criticized the decision.

Lise Meitner retired in England, remaining close friends with Hahn, and dying in 1968 after a series of health complications. She was a woman who stood behind a major leap in our understanding of physics, managing to do what she loved and lived for while still staying true to her moral principles.



 

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