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Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)

When Lise Meitner finished school at age 14, she was barred from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. But, inspired by the discoveries of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was determined to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. In 1912, the pair moved to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, they continued to collaborate. Meitner continued her work in Sweden and after Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, she calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, overlooked by the Nobel committee, refused to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.

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