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The Brilliant Female Brain Behind the Bomb

The Brilliant Female Brain Behind the Bomb

By Dan Peleschuk


Lise Meitner is probably the most important researcher you’ve never heard of.

By Dan Peleschuk

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 was complicated in a number of ways.

There was the catastrophic war that was tearing Europe apart, inflicting unspoken suffering on millions of people. There’s also the fact that it wasn’t even awarded that year. Thanks to a stipulation in Alfred Nobel’s will, which mandated that the prize be held until the following year if none of the nominees met all the criteria, German scientist Otto Hahn took it home in 1945.

But perhaps most problematic for posterity was that Hahn, the sole winner that year, wasn’t the only brain behind it. In fact, he wasn’t even the driving force. That distinction went to Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, perhaps the most important researcher you’ve never heard of. 

Chances are, you’ve heard of nuclear fission — the term Meitner coined in her theoretical explanation of the phenomenon she and Hahn discovered together. But the pioneering researcher — once described by Albert Einstein to their mutual colleagues as “our Marie Curie,” a nod to the first female recipient of the Nobel Prize — was effectively robbed of the world renowned award. If it weren’t for her, we might never have had nuclear fission — or, for that matter, the atomic bomb.

Virtually from her birth in Vienna in 1878, Meitner was surrounded by intellectual rigor. Her father was one of the city’s first Jewish lawyers, and she continued his legacy of breaking new ground, becoming only the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in physics at the University of Vienna. She moved to Berlin in 1907 and began attending lectures by legendary physicist Max Planck, eventually becoming his assistant in the male-dominated world of scientific research. Apart from meeting Einstein around that time, she was also introduced to Hahn, a charismatic chemist. 

Lise Meitner, Physikerin, Österreich, mit Fr. Karlik

Atomic physicist Lise Meitner, right, with the head of the Austrian Radium Institute, 1953.

Source Ullstein Bid/Getty

Soon, they began working together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, where they dove into research on radioactivity. It was a perfect match, says filmmaker Wolf Truchsess von Wetzhausen, who made a documentary about Meitner: She was the analytical mind, while Hahn was more of a creative thinker. So productive was the pair that they were nominated, jointly, by colleagues for a Nobel 10 times.

Around the time Adolf Hitler was cementing his grip on Germany, the fiercely determined Meitner convinced her research partner to delve deeper into study of the atomic nucleus and uranium, the heaviest known particle. But the political environment proved too oppressive for her to stick around: Though baptized a Christian, Meitner was still considered a Jew in Hitler’s racist state, and once Austrians were subjected to German law following the 1938 Nazi invasion of that country, she decamped to Sweden. “I had exactly one and one-half hour to pack,” she’s said to have recalled years later. She snuck across the German-Dutch border in a hasty exit organized with the help of several friends, and never looked back.

But the working relationship between Meitner and Hahn continued. The latter was perplexed when his experimentation bombarding the uranium nucleus broke it into smaller, separate bits — a scientific first. The only problem? He couldn’t figure out how to explain exactly why that happened.

So he left it to Meitner who, along with her nephew Otto Frisch, got to work piecing together a theoretical framework, calling the newly discovered process “nuclear fission.” “Without her, this would never have even happened,” says von Wetzhausen. Several weeks after Hahn published his findings of their joint research in 1939 — in which he left out her name, knowing it would only cause trouble — Meitner and Frisch published their explanation in the journal Nature. The word “fission” never even appeared in Hahn’s paper, though it did appear in the announcement that Hahn alone had been awarded the Nobel Prize.

Over the years, the widely accepted narrative was one that depicted Meitner as Hahn’s junior partner. Worse still for Meitner, the process they discovered was also central to building the bomb — an application with which she personally disagreed. While she refused an invitation to work on the famous Manhattan Project, she didn’t campaign aggressively against the dangers of atomic power either, preferring to simply distance herself from her role in facilitating it. Still, Meitner — who never married and had no children — became known as “the mother of the atomic bomb.”

Professor Lise Meitner Receives Otto Hahn Prize for Physics

Scientist Lise Meitner becomes the first person to be awarded the Otto Hahn Prize for Chemistry and Physics at a Munich ceremony.

Source Bettman Corbis/Getty

Although some have praised Meitner’s humanity in dissociating herself from the suffering her discovery help lead to, others aren’t so sure. One Hiroshima survivor von Wetzhausen interviewed for his film said, “This is, I think, the tragedy of her life: that she never really took any responsibly for her doing.”

Nobel or not, Meitner didn’t go unfeted forever. A few years after Hahn’s solo Nobel award, Meitner was given the prestigious Max Planck medal, and in 1966, the U.S. Department of Energy honored her — together with Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann — with the Enrico Fermi Award. She’s also been immortalized with a spot on the periodic table, only the second woman to receive such an honor — with chemical element 109, a highly radioactive and artificially created substance.

It’s known as meitnerium. There is no element named for Otto Hahn.

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