The Mother of the Atomic Bomb
“Boltzmann gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost.” Otto Frisch
Lise Meitner was born on 7th November, 1878, in Vienna, she was the third child in eight in her Jewish family.
Meitner did not get to attend college due to the Austrian restrictions on female education, but since her family could afford it, she still got to complete college thanks to private education. After this she went to University of Vienna where she got so inspired by the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, her teacher at that time that she did her research on radioactivity. In 1905, she was the second woman in the university’s history to earn a doctorate degree.
Her interest and understanding of physics had such a profound effect on the physicist Max Planck that he allowed her to sit in on his lectures. Before her he had always barred women from his class. Later on Meitner became Planck’s assistant and got to work with Hahn as well. While working together they uncovered a number of isotopes.
In 1923, Meitner uncovered the radiationless transition, but in those days women pursuing such academic interests were looked down upon and therefore she did not receive the acclaim due to her at such a momentous discovery. Two years later a French scientist named Pierre Victor Auger ended up discovering it as well and to this day it is associated with him as the Auger effect.
Meitner and Hahn stayed research partners for almost 30 years and during this time they isolated the isotope protactinium-231for the first time. Together the two focused on beta decay and nuclear isomerism. In the 1930s, Fritz Strassmann joined their research team and the three started investigating the results of neutron bombardment of uranium.
In 1938, Germany occupied Austria, due to which Meitner fled to Sweden, since it was still comparatively safer for Jews even though she was a Protestant. In Sweden Meitner joined the Manne Siegbahn’s institute in Stockholm, where she was not treated well. In her book “Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics,” Ruth Lewin Sime wrote, “Neither asked to join Siegbahn’s group nor given the resources to form her own, she had laboratory space but no collaborators, equipment, or technical support, not even her own set of keys to the workshops and laboratories.” It is believed that the mistreatment of Meitner could have been due to Siegbahn’s prejudice against women in science.
In 1939, Meitner formed a partnership with her nephew, Otto Frisch and together they coined up the term “Fission” to describe the splitting of an atom to create energy. This process was explained in their research paper which was published in the journal Nature that same year. Frisch would later write about his aunt, “It was Lise Meitner who explained these experiments as splitting atoms. When this paper appeared, all the leading physicists at the time immediately realized, here was a source of great destructive energy.”
This discovery caused quite a panic amongst the leading physicists of the time. Albert Einstein even wrote a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt forewarning him of the destructive power of such findings. This study is what led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. Meitner was invited to join the team developing the atomic bomb but she refused. However, after the end of WWII, Meitner was hailed as “the mother of the atomic bomb.”
Today, Lise Meitner is considered the “most significant female scientist of the 20th Century.” Meitner will forever be remembered for her findings in nuclear physics. In 1992, Element No. 109, meitnerium, was named in her honor.
In 1960, Meitner retired to England and died on 27th October, 1968, in Cambridge, England.
The Mother of the Atomic Bomb