A physicist who never lost her humanity

Your new role model.This is Lise Meitner. You may not recognise her. That’s ok. Most of the scientific community didn’t. In fact, she was arguably one of the most overlooked scientists of the 20th century. But she was a scientific badass and a role model for anyone struggling in the face of oppression. If you don’t agree with me, then I’m afraid that I don’t think we can be friends.

Lise Meitner, you see, had to face a lot of oppression in her life. Over a century ago, the world in which she lived was a lot more backwards than it is now. Back then, women weren’t allowed to attend universities or other higher educational institutes. Did that stop her? No. She needed help and support from her family, but she managed to get private tuition. She went on to become the second woman ever to get a doctoral degree from the University of Vienna in 1905. Afterwards, her father encouraged her to continue in science. She moved to Berlin, where she was the first woman who Max Planck had ever allowed to attend one of his lectures. Just one year later, she was Planck’s assistant.

While this was further than anyone at the time could have expected her to go, Meitner continued to lead a distinguished and shockingly unrecognised career as a theoretical physicist. In 1922, she discovered an effect which caused electrons to be emitted from the surfaces of materials with characteristic signature energies. Instead of being given credit for this, the phenomenon was named the Auger Effect, named after a french physicist who discovered the same effect, independently – albeit one year later than Meitner did.

Explosive.The worst injustice Lise Meitner would go on to suffer, however, was still to come. Quite simply, she was one of the discoverers of nuclear fission. A small team of researchers were trying to induce uranium atoms to capture neutrons in order to artificially create atoms with an atomic number higher than 92 (the heaviest atoms capable of being naturally created). After bombarding uranium with neutrons, her colleague Otto Hahn was baffled by the fact that far more energy had been released than anticipated, leaving behind barium atoms. Hahn considered that the uranium atoms must have been fragmented in the experiments, so he wrote to Meitner to discuss it with her. It was Lise Meitner who then went on to realise that Einstein’s equation, E = mc², was able to explain the huge amount of energy released, as she developed the theory behind nuclear fission. However, it would be Hahn who, in 1945, would be awarded the Nobel prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. Truly, I believe (as do many others) that the prize should also have belonged to Meitner.

On a final note, Lise Meitner was a woman of principle and integrity. She had long recognised the potentially catastrophic uses of nuclear fission and refused to ever research its use as a weapon. Indeed, despite an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, Meitner did what any good person should – she declined the offer, simply stating;”I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

A lot of people may be put off from attempting to do what they want to in life, or believe that they can’t because society prevents them from doing so. Still others may be tempted to sell themselves out in order to achieve recognition. To my mind, anyone who feels either of these things should consider the shining example of Lise Meitner. More than anything, she proved in her life that even in the face of overwhelming prejudice, it is still possible to reach your dreams.

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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14 Responses to A physicist who never lost her humanity

  1. Pingback: Today’s Birthday: IDA NODDACK (1896) | euzicasa

  2. Ellie says:

    And what about Marie Curie? Another inspirational, and incredibly hardworking, woman and mother …

    • invaderxan says:

      Marie Curie was indeed, an inspirational figure and an iconic woman of science. However, she also has the luxury of being one of the few (possibly the only one?) whose name everyone knows. While I would never diminish Curie’s accomplishments in any way, I, for one, would like to see a few more female scientists receive the recognition they deserve.

      I believe xkcd put it quite well

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  4. Prof. Bleen says:

    You left out the most dramatic part of the fission story: Meitner, who was Jewish, had to flee to Sweden in the late 1930s (which is why Hahn had to discuss uranium fission with her via mail). There, she and her nephew, Otto Fritsch, worked out the mechanism by which the uranium-235 nucleus split in two. Hahn was hesitant to back the fission story with his prestige, but Meitner, who at that point had nothing to lose, went ahead and published it.

    • invaderxan says:

      As, I suppose, you would in that situation. After all, she barely escaped from Nazi Germany with her life, and had barely more than the clothes she was wearing, a few coins, and a diamond ring which a friend had given her in case she needed to bribe any guards.

      To be honest, I needed to omit a lot of detail from her story because if I didn’t, I was at risk of writing a book chapter instead of a blog post. Though, frankly, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea someday…

  5. James says:

    She had the last laugh though. She had an element named after her, which is more permanent fame than a Nobel Prize.

  6. Natasha says:

    This puts me in mind of Rosalind Franklin, in my own (former) field. I didn’t know about Meitner, so thank you for sharing.

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