Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878October 27, 1968) was an Austrian physicist who studied radioactivity and nuclear physics.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Lise Meitner was the third of eight children of a Jewish family. She entered the University of Vienna in 1901, studying physics under Ludwig Boltzmann. After she obtained her doctorate degree, she went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck and the chemist Otto Hahn. She worked together with Hahn for 30 years, each of them leading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Hahn and Meitner collaborated closely studying radioactivity, with her knowledge of physics and his knowledge of chemistry.

In 1918, they discovered the element protactinium.

In 1923, she discovered the radiationless transition known as the Auger effect, which is named for Pierre Victor Auger, a French scientist who discovered the effect two years later.

After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Germany for Sweden. She continued her work at Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm, but with little support, partially due to Siegbahn's prejudice against women in science. Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments. The experiments which provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin and published in January 1939. In February 1939, Meitner published the physical explanation for the observations and, with her nephew physicist Otto Robert Frisch, named the process "nuclear fission". Nuclear fission as a phenomenon was completely unexpected; it took some study of the data and creative thinking to free her mind from the conventional preconceptions. This report had an electrifying effect on physicists in the know, in particular Leo Szilard, who realized immediately that this might allow a chain reaction leading to an explosion. Because this could be used as weapon, and the knowledge being in German hands, Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner together jumped into action, persuading Einstein, who had the celebrity, to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warning letter, which led to the Manhattan Project.

In 1944, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, and Meitner was ignored by the Nobel committee, partly because Hahn downplayed her role ever since she left Germany. Some said also that Siegbahn had worked against her to the Nobel committee. This was partially corrected in 1966, when Hahn and Meitner together were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award with Fritz Stra߭ann. On a visit to the USA in 1946 she was treated to total American press celebrity treatment, with the usual press inaccuracy, as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse". She was honored as "Woman of the Year" by the National Women's Press Club (USA) in 1946; received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society, 1949.

Meitner died in Cambridge, England in 1968. Element 109 is named meitnerium in her honor.

Further reading

  • Otto Robert Frisch, (ed.) 1959. Trends in Atomic Physics: Essays Dedicated to Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue on the Occasion of their 80th Birthday. New York: Interscience.
  • Patricia Rife, Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age Birkh䵳er, 1999
  • Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, ISBN 0520089065

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