[EAS] Lise Meitner

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Feb 29 16:00:55 EST 2004

Subject:   Lise Meitner

As an Austrian by birth, I could not resist sending this. Besides,
it is another instance of a woman making a pivotal scientific
contribution, yet not sharing the Nobel Prize for it. 
When I say that, I have Rosalyn Franklin in mind, who should have
shared the Nobel prize awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins for the
structure of DNA. Sadly, Franklin was no longer alive, so could not
share the prize. However, neither Crick nor Watson even mentioned
her in their Nobel lectures. To his credit, Wilkins did pay tribute
to her contribution.
In his Nobel lecture, Hahn does credit Meitner for her collaboration
and the term "nuclear fission" (Kernspaltung). As interesting
studies in intellectual history and ego, all Nobel lectures are
online at <http://www.nobel.se/>.  --PJK

(from NewsScan Daily, 27 February 2004)

     Today's Honorary Subscriber is the Vienna-born physicist Lise
Meitner (1878-1968); she shared the 1966 Enrico Fermi Award with
chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann for the joint research that
led to the discovery of uranium fission -- thereby laying the
theoretical groundwork for the development of the atomic bomb and
nuclear power.
     Coining the term "fission" for the process, Meitner (working in
Sweden with her nephew, physicist Otto Frisch) discovered how a
uranium atom bombarded with neutrons splits and releases massive
quantities of energy. Her discovery was based on a careful
re-analysis of the results of nuclear experiments she had conducted
in 1930s Germany with her long-time collaborator and close friend,
chemist Otto Hahn. Being Jewish, Meitner was forced to flee to
Sweden after Hitler invaded Austria in 1938. Hahn sent her the data
from their experiments, and in 1939 she published her groundbreaking
findings in the journal Nature.
     Born the daughter of a Viennese doctor, Meitner became
interested in atomic physics in 1902 after reading about Marie and
Pierre Curie's discovery of radium. In 1906 she became one of the
first women to receive a doctorate from the University of Vienna.
Moving to Berlin to study with quantum theorist Max Planck, she also
began her working association with the radiochemist Otto Hahn, a
relationship that lasted 30 years and brought both of them
international fame. In 1918 the pair discovered protactinium,
(chemical element 91 that occupies the position between thorium and
uranium on the periodic table).
     Meitner spent the World War I years working as an X-ray nurse
with the Austrian army. Returning to Germany after the war to work
with Hahn, they were at the point of discovering how to split the
uranium atom when in 1938 Meitner had to leave for Sweden to escape
Nazi persecution. Nine months later Hahn announced his success in
splitting the atom. He sent Meitner the results of his
experimentation for analysis, providing her with the data she needed
to explain the process at work when bombarding one uranium atom with
a neutron could release some 200 million electron volts.
     Despite having come up with the key concept of atomic fission,
Meitner was overlooked when the 1944 Nobel Prize was awarded to Hahn
for splitting the atom.
     The Danish physicist Niels Bohr brought Meitner's work on
fission to the attention of the scientists in America who were
working on the atomic bomb, whose development came as a surprise to
Meitner. After the war, she was at pains to note that she had no
part in its development, stating that her atomic research was never
undertaken with the goal of "producing death-dealing weapons." She
remained in Stockholm, working at the Atomic Energy Laboratory,
until 1958 when she retired and moved to Cambridge, England. She
also broke with Hahn, not because of the Nobel Prize snub, but
because he along with other German scientists never stood up to

im for Patricia Rife's "Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear
Age" -- or look for it in your favorite library. (We donate all
revenue from our book recommendations to adult literacy programs.)

More information about the EAS-INFO mailing list