Lise Meitner

(1878—1968) physicist

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Austrian-born Swedish physicist, discoverer with her nephew Otto Frisch of nuclear fission.

The daughter of a lawyer, she became interested in physics when she was told as a small girl that the colours produced by oil-stained puddles were due to the interference of light waves. Her father insisted that she first qualify as a teacher before he allowed her to study science at the University of Vienna. She duly obtained her doctorate in 1906 and moved to Berlin, where she began a remarkably fruitful research partnership with Otto Hahn that lasted more than thirty years.

Initially, Meitner was received somewhat churlishly and exiled to an old carpentry shop, on the grounds that her hair was liable to catch fire in a laboratory. However, apart from the period of World War I, which she spent nursing, Meitner remained in Berlin working mainly on establishing some of the basic features of the radioactive elements. In 1935, with her collaborators Hahn and Fritz Strassmann (1902–80), her work included a study of the decay products of irradiated uranium. It proved to be a complex field, but before their work could be completed Meitner, as a Jewess, fled from Berlin in 1938. After brief periods in Holland and Denmark, Meitner settled in Sweden, where she worked at the Nobel Institute of Physics in Stockholm until her retirement in 1960. Her last years were spent in Cambridge, England, where Otto Frisch and other relatives had settled.

It was with Frisch in 1938, while he was visiting her in Gothenburg, that she discussed the latest results of her collaborators, Hahn and Strassmann. They had found that isotopes of barium were produced when uranium was irradiated with neutrons. After a few calculations Meitner and Frisch concluded that the results could be explained by assuming the uranium nucleus had split into smaller parts, a process they later called nuclear fission. It was this process that led to the development of nuclear weapons, work that Meitner refused to pursue. Although she was not awarded a Nobel Prize, Meitner did share with Hahn and Strassmann the prestigious Fermi Prize in 1965.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics — Contemporary History (Post 1945).

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