Lise Meitner – The Misjudged Genius

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn

On October 27, 1968 the scientist Lise Meitner passed away. She is known today for her passionate and extraordinary work on radioactivity and nuclear physics along with her colleague Otto Hahn, who was honored with the Nobel Prize while Meitner stayed unrecognized.

Born in 1878 in Vienna, Lise Meitner’s talents were early detected, not unusual for scientists who achieved these major efforts in their later lives. It was just bad luck that she unfortunately was not male. She was not allowed to attend either grammar school or university and could only later finish these studies. Finally attending the University of Vienna she was highly influenced but also respected by Ludwig Boltzmann, a genius in physics himself. It was later noted that Boltzmann “gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost“.

Despite the many political difficulties, Meitner managed to earn herself the doctorate degree in 1906 as the second woman in the field of physics ever. Right after this milestone she met Stefan Mayer, another Austrian physicist focusing on radioactivity, who suggested Meitner to look into his fields of study. She began measuring the ‘absorption of alpha and beta radiation emitted bythorium and actinium in foils of various metals‘, which introduced her to the the topic that would change and determine the rest of her life.

In 1907, Lise Meitner left for Berlin to study with Max Planck, whose gesture to accept a woman in the auditorium was very unusual, but he soon discovered her huge talent and hired her as an assistant. It was also in the university’s physics department where she met the man who she would work with in a 30 year partnership, Otto Hahn. Their collaboration was commented by Sir James Chadwick as “one of the most fruitful partnerships in the history of science“. But working together was not easy, since no women were allowed in the Chemistry Institute. Meitner worked in the Institute’s basement secretly for a while until moving their work to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute in Dahlem, where Meitner worked without salary to begin with.

After serving in World War I, Meitner came back to work with Otto Hahn, and it seems like she was finally respected in the scientific community. She was awarded the Leibniz Medal and got her own physics section, also she became the very first woman in Germany to be offered a post of a full professor in physics.

Things changed in 1933, due to Adolf Hitler who was gaining power and worsening the situation for thousands of people including the work group of Lise Meitner. Being a Jew, she had to flee and accidentally landed in Sweden where she continued her work with physicist and nobel laureate Manne Siegbahn, but still corresponding with Otto Hahn whom she secretly met once in a while. Because it was impossible for Meitner and Hahn to publish their works on nuclear fission together for political reasons, Hahn was the one associated with their major efforts.

What Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn quickly had to realize was that they not only contributed to physics and chemistry, their discovery was soon noticed by Roosevelt, which may have been a critical point to begin with the Manhattan Project in which Meitner refused to contribute in.

Lise Meitner is to be seen as a genius physicist who despite the political and social challenges she had to face never gave up on her dream to becoming a giant in her fields of research. She is along with Otto Hahn responsible for presumably one of the most effective but also dangerous discoveries of humankind.

However, Lise Meitner was mostly (after finally leaving the stereotypes behind) appreciated in the scientific community. Even Albert Einstein praised her as the ‘German Marie Curie‘ and in 1997 the synthetic element 109 (Meitnerium) was named after her.

At yovisto you can enjoy the lecture ‘Lise Meitner and the Discovery of Fission‘ by Anthea Coster from Dartmouth College.

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