The physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission, but her work has not gained the recognition it deserves. Some of her male colleagues reaped the fruits of that discovery, one of them even earning the Nobel Prize, whereas Meitner was overlooked for that ultimate acknowledgment.
A passion for physics
Elise Meitner was born in Vienna, Austria, on November 7, 1878, to a well-off family. Her parents encouraged their eight children, boys and girls, to pursue advanced studies, but Austrian universities would not open their doors to women until 1897. Lise Meitner entered the University of Vienna in 1901, where she quickly developed a passion for physics. She received her doctorate in 1905 with the highest distinction.
In 1907, Lise traveled to Germany to continue her academic work with the renowned physicist Max Planck. Since German universities were not yet admitting women, she was granted special authorization to study with Planck.
Lise quickly became a specialist in radioactivity, a rapidly developing area of physics in the early 20th century.
Productive collaboration with Otto Hahn
In Germany she met a young chemist, Otto Hahn, who would remain a close friend all her life. He proposed that the two of them work together at the chemistry institute headed by Emil Fischer. As Fischer was reluctant to have a woman working at the institute, the two scientists were restricted to a laboratory in the basement.
In 1912, Lise joined Otto at the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry, but as a volunteer. After the First World War, Lise’s work was finally recognized and she was appointed director of the physics department at the Institute.
The collaboration between the physicist Lise Meitner and the chemist Otto Hahn led to the discovery of a number of isotopes, including protactinium, the chemical element with the atomic number 91.
The Auger effect
In 1923 Lise discovered an important property of atoms when they emit an electron and release some previously accumulated energy. This property would be independently discovered a little later by the French physicist Pierre Auger. Today the phenomenon bears the name Auger effect – ignoring the name and contribution of Lise Meitner!
Lise then began to study artificial nuclear reactions. Hahn and the chemist Fritz Strassmann carried out experiments designed by Lise with the aim of creating heavier nuclei than uranium.
The accession to power of the Nazi regime forced Lise to eventually emigrate to Sweden in 1938, where she would become a naturalized citizen in 1949. She later regretted having waited as long as she did to leave Germany.
The discovery of nuclear fission
Lise carried on the collaboration with Hahn and Strassmann covertly. In 1938, the latter two asked Lise to help them explain the results of their experiments. She was the first to understand that the procedure discovered was nuclear fission. The scientific publication of the phenomenon was signed by Hahn and Strassmann; the role played by Lise was not mentioned. In 1944, Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize for his work on nuclear fission.
To Lise’s great dismay, that discovery would lead to the creation of the atomic bomb, which was later used in Japan in 1945. A staunch pacifist, she refused the invitation to work on the development of that devastating weapon.
Lise Meitner felt no ill will towards Otto Hahn when overlooked for the Nobel Prize. It should also be noted that she would receive 49 Nobel Prize nominations overall for the great quality of her work, but unfortunately, her candidacy was never rewarded.
She did receive more than 20 honors in the course of her career. A crater on the Moon and one on the planet Venus bear her name, along with the asteroid 6999 Meitner. In 1997, the chemical element number 109 was named meitnerium in her memory.
Many women scientists are unfortunately unknown to the general public, despite important discoveries. Learn more about some of them:
- Mary Jackson, a pioneer who opened the doors to space, despite segregation
- Vera Cooper Rubin, the woman who discovered the dark side of the Universe
- Katherine Johnson, the mathematician who enabled NASA to travel to space
- The lasers that changed the life of Donna Strickland
- Susan Jocelyn Bell, the overlooked Nobel Prize winner
Don't miss the nobELLES exhibition
presented at the Planetarium from April 27, 2023