Just before Christmas 1938, sitting on a tree trunk in the snowy Swedish woods, the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner and her favorite nephew, Otto Frisch—also a physicist—made a series of calculations on scraps of paper. They did so at the request of colleagues in Germany, who were faced with a mystery. Experiments appeared to show that uranium atoms split into lighter elements upon being bombarded with neutrons, rather than turning into heavier ones, as everyone expected. The Germans appealed to Meitner for an explanation—and she provided one in full. The uranium was indeed splitting, releasing a burst of kinetic energy, exactly consistent with Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2. She and Frisch coined the term nuclear fission for the process. And with that, the atomic age began.
On August 29, 1982, nearly 44 years after this extraordinary breakthrough—and 35 years ago this week—the synthetic (i.e., not naturally occurring) radioactive element meitnerium was first created. The only element so far solely to take the name of a woman who was not a mythological figure, it is named in honor of Meitner, a true pioneer in radioactivity research.
Lise Meitner (1878–1968) was born in Vienna, Austria, the third of eight children in a middle-class Jewish family. Although by 19th-century Austrian standards a girl’s education ended at the age of 14, Lise continued to take private lessons and, in 1905, earned her PhD in physics from the University of Vienna; she was the second woman to do so at the institution. It was here that her university professor Ludwig Boltzmann would instill in her “the vision of physics as a battle for the ultimate truth.” This vision would persist throughout her entire life.
After some initial work on radioactivity, in 1907, she decided to go to Berlin to work with Max Planck. Once in Berlin, Meitner was obliged (per university policy for women) to ask Planck’s permission to attend lectures. Although hesitant (and noting she already had a PhD), Planck did agree. However, Meitner was interested in doing scientific research as well and began a collaboration with Otto Hahn. It was a perfect match, with Hahn as the experimental chemist and Meitner as the theoretical physicist.
As an assistant at the University of Berlin Chemistry Institute, Hahn had access to some of the finest facilities. Meitner, on the other hand, had no professional standing (since she was a woman) and was allowed only to do her work in the confines of a former carpenter’s closet located in the institute’s basement; the only toilet accessible to her was located in a restaurant down the street. Finally, by 1909, Prussian universities began to lower their barriers to women, and Meitner now enjoyed access to the institute’s laboratories (and the convenience of a newly installed ladies’ room).
Hahn and Meitner made great strides in their work on radioactivity, which led to a quick succession of papers: three papers in 1908 and six in 1909. In 1912, Meitner and Hahn moved to the new Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry; Meitner finally made it out of the carpenter’s closet. Here, Meitner worked without pay as a “guest physicist,” and a year later, her position became permanent.
In 1917, she was finally given her own physics section and a salary almost (but not quite) equivalent to Hahn’s. Around that same time, Meitner and Hahn discovered the isotope protactinium, which won Meitner the Leibniz Medal. In 1926, Meitner became the first woman in Germany to be made a full professor.
By 1938, Hitler’s reign finally forced Meitner to leave her work behind and flee Germany, eventually ending up in Stockholm, at the Nobel Institute for Physics (of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences), where the 1924 Nobel laureate Manne Siegbahn had recently been appointed director. Here, she was paid the salary of a junior assistant and lived on borrowed money in a small hotel room. Although Meitner had been given laboratory space, she wasn’t allotted actual resources to start her own group, nor was she asked to join Siegbahn’s research group (most likely because of Siegbahn’s prejudice towards woman and—he being eight years younger—his simply viewing her scientific approach as old-fashioned). Without collaborators, equipment or even her own set of keys allowing her entry to laboratories and workshops, her situation was very reminiscent of the time in that carpenter’s closet several years prior. Her hands were tied, and she was unable to carry out her work.
Nonetheless, she continued to collaborate with Hahn. Indeed, it was not difficult to maintain contact with him in Berlin as mail service was very fast, and they wrote each other daily. And then in November of 1938, she and Hahn met in Copenhagen (which was a well-kept secret at the time and totally absent from Hahn’s memoirs later) to discuss their ongoing project. The project was centered on investigations into the nuclear reactions of uranium. This was something that had intrigued Meitner ever since the pioneering work of Enrico Fermi in 1934. She brought the idea to Hahn and persuaded him for weeks before he finally agreed to join her. And it was she who led the investigation for fours year prior to her forced departure from Germany.
Back in Berlin, Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann continued their experiments. From Strassmann’s own words, it’s clear that Meitner continued to be the guiding force of the project, “Fortunately, L. Meitner’s opinion and judgment carried so much weight with us in Berlin that we immediately undertook the necessary control experiments.” Their experiments seemed to show an amazing discovery: uranium splits into lighter elements upon being bombarded with neutrons. How could this be? After all, some four years of prior work by top scientists in the field had suggested that a heavier (transuranium) – not lighter – element would be created. Incredulous, Hahn wrote to Meitner, “Perhaps you can come up with some sort of fantastic explanation.” And that she did.
Although her contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission are well documented and she was nominated for a Nobel Prize on several occasions, she never received one (in either chemistry or physics). In 1944 the Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded to Hahn alone for the remarkable discovery of nuclear fission. Hahn initially referred to the work as a collaborative effort between him, Meitner, and Strassmann, but he would later and forever maintain that this discovery was solely the fruit of the experimental chemistry he and Strassmann had done, even going so far as to imply that physics had actually hindered the discovery.
While the celebrity Meitner deserved was blatantly denied her, an undeserved association with the atomic bomb was bestowed. Meitner was outright opposed to nuclear weapons: “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” Indeed, she was the only prominent Allied physicist to refuse an invitation to work on its construction at Los Alamos.
Nonetheless, Meitner received many honors in her lifetime: the Max Planck Award in 1949; honorary doctorates from Princeton, Harvard and other U.S. universities; the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966 (shared with Hahn and Fritz Strassmann), to name a few.
And of course, there’s meitnerium.
Cropper, William H. Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sime, Ruth L. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.