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The atomic bomb was a major technological accomplishment, despite its moral problems. Some physicists at the time thought that a chain reaction that would lead to a nuclear explosion in which at least some matter would turn into energy was impossible. Some, like Werner Heisenberg, were unable to solve the final practical design problems (or so he said), luckily for the Allies in World War II as Heisenberg stayed in Germany and worked for the Third Reich. However, it was a remarkable Austrian Jewish scientist, Lise Meitner, along with her German associate Otto Hahn, who effectively described the process that led to the A-bomb - fission.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna to Jewish parents on November 7, 1878, although there are some problems with the exact date- some documents say November 17th. Her father was a lawyer.  Her parents supported her education when women were expected to become wives and mothers, thereby not needing one.  Her brilliance eventually won her the place of the second woman to obtain a doctorate in physics (1905) from the University of Vienna. Like most women scientist of the period she worked at an unpaid position, in her case for the great physicist Max Planck in Germany (who uncharacteristically allowed her to sit in on his lectures.) She was the first woman Planck had ever taken into his laboratory.  

Lise Meitner (who's original first name was Elise) did extremely well and eventually became associated professionally with Otto Hahn at the Institute. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann were able to demonstrate fission of Uranium in their laboratory, but Meitner was the one who explained it.   It was 1938 and the paper in Naturwissenshaften did not include her because she was of Jewish extraction.  This eventually led to Hahn winning the Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission in 1944, although Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch explained their results in Nature in 1939.

She was at this point in exile, having just escaped arrest and traveled to Sweden, where she found a place at a laboratory (Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm) and at the same time formed a friendship with the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. She spent her time between Stockholm and Copenhagen. Because of the work of Meitner, Hahn, Strassmann and Frisch, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner caused Albert Einstein to write the now famous letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which eventually led to the building of the atomic bomb. Meitner refused to take part in the development of the weapon and was horrified at the result. Her only interest was curiosity about the natural world and its physical laws.  She had never really envisioned that a weapon of such magnitude would be produced and had no intention of becoming involved in its production. Although she stayed friends with Hahn, she blamed him for not being more active in protecting scientists with Jewish backgrounds and she blamed herself for not paying more attention.  She had become Lutheran, but this hardly mattered to the Third Reich.

She never won the Nobel Prize (for which the Nobel Committee never apologized), but she and Strassmann shared the 1966 Enrico Fermi Award with Hahn. She did have her posthumous revenge in there being an element, Meitnerium, named for her in 1997. She also has craters named after her on the moon and Venus and the Hahn-Meitner Institute in Berlin.

She died at 89 after several strokes and a earlier heart attack.

In some ways this sketch is perhaps less personal than my earlier short biographies because I did not have even the tenuous connection to Lise Meitner that I had with the others. However, although she disowned the Atomic Bomb, I well remember the result of her calculations -above ground and underground testing in Nevada and later in the Pacific (by the later tests they were dealing with Teller's "Super"- the Hydrogen Bomb, based on the fusion of Hydrogen into Helium atoms, but they still needed the fission bomb to start the reaction.)  By no means did we have the radioactive fallout in Arizona that they had in Nevada and Utah, but where I grew up was close enough that we still acutely aware of the power of these bombs.  I also lived through the Cold War and was very grateful to both Eisenhower and Kennedy for not getting us into Armageddon when their advisors seemed a bit too gung ho.  Lise Meitner was trying to solve a problem in pure physics and in the process laid the groundwork for total destruction. This demonstrates that even in pure science there are often unintended consequences and these may have to be more closely analyzed by the researchers involved. Still, Meitner's contribution to physics was quite basic to modern science and demonstrates that female scientists were and are quite capable of major contributions.


Lise Meitner 1878-1968.

Lise Meitner.

Rife, Patricia. 2006. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Birkhäuser Boston

Sime, Ruth Lewin. 1997. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.  University of California Press.

Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Mon Apr 16, 2012 at 06:04 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech, Feminism, Pro-Feminism, Womanism: Feminist Issues, Ideas, & Activism, Pink Clubhouse, History for Kossacks, and Community Spotlight.

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