Great Women of Science: Lisë Meitner – The Physicist Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize

Nuclear power, both peaceful and military, is based on atomic fission, unleashing titanic amounts of energy via splitting the nucleus of certain atoms, mainly enriched Uranium U235. In 1944, Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize for its discovery. Omitted from recognition was his co-discoverer, the first female physics professor in Germany, Dr. Lisë Meitner.
"Shy Lise the doctoral candidate, 1906, Vienna” from Wikipedia

The Legacy

Co-discovering nuclear fission (a term conceived for a paper written with her nephew, Otto Frisch), wasn’t the only accomplishment of Professor Meitner. She also co-discovered the element protactinium in 1918. In 1923, she discovered “radiationless transition” - a strange emission of electrons from “excited atoms” [1] now known as “the Auger effect” after the French scientist Pierre Victor Auger. (He “discovered” the effect two years later). Albert Einstein called her the “German Marie Curie,” after the Polish scientist who won two Nobel Prizes, physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911. 

More a contemporary of Marie’s daughter, Irėne Joliot-Curie (who won the Nobel in 1935 in Chemistry) than her more famous mother, Lisë, Irėne, and Marie were the only three women attending the prestigious Solvay Congress in 1933 alongside a litany of attendees whose names read like the Who’s Who in Physics and Radioactivity [2] and who, unlike Lisë, received due recognition for their work. That select conference addressed the sensational findings of 1932-1933: the discovery of the neutron, the positron, and the deuteron (the heavy isotope of hydrogen), discoveries that reshaped nuclear physics.

A Woman and a Jew: The Early Years

1878, the year Lisë (nee Elise) birth, was not the most auspicious time for a future woman scientist, certainly not a Jewish one. The third of eight children born to an Austrian lawyer, Lisë’s only intellectual future lay in private schooling for young ladies of the middle class to prepare for a career teaching. Meitner chose French, even as she noted her preference for math and physics. Austria, however, was somewhat more advanced than Germany. By 1899, the country had revamped its educational rules and invited women into the halls of higher scholarship, which Lise embraced with a passion. By 1901, she had crammed enough preparatory work and tutoring to qualify for admission to the University of Vienna.

Obstacles and Conspiracies of the Gods

Like her contemporary, mathematician Emmy Noether (born four years later), after graduating, Lisë began her academic career without pay, even as she garnered the respect of Max Planck [3], becoming his lab assistant as he became her mentor and ultimately “true friend,” garnering her awed admiration. In 1917, she was finally granted her own research lab at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. By 1926, at the age of 48, after several groundbreaking papers, she was invited to head a research program in nuclear physics at the University of Berlin. There, she continued her 30-year collaboration with colleague Otto Hahn, who was later to steal her limelight, publishing the seminal paper of their joint work on fission solely under his name.

As she rose to prominence, becoming, as her nephew and later collaborator, Otto Frisch, would say, “short, dark, and bossy,” she never lost a painful personal insecurity that continued to haunt and dreadfully impacted her life and career decisions. 

“When Adolf Hitler rose to power in 1933, most Jewish scientists fled Germany including Meitner’s … nephew, Otto Frisch. [Einstein left in 1932; Noether in 1933], Meitner, however, remained behind …, a decision she later regretted:… [E]ventually Meitner, too, was forced to flee the country with the help of Dutch physicists. She had just ten German marks to her name….” 

Her escape came years too late as she ignored the warning signs and procrastinated, only leaving in 1938 after much torment and harassment by the Reich. By then, her options for finding a position outside German reaches had winnowed to practically nothing. Her abject reluctance to leave is puzzling, along with a sudden “attachment” to material possessions, to which she previously demonstrated no interest. Ruth Lewin Sime’s biography intimates  that Lise’s reluctance to relocate might have been due to a deep-seated lack of self-confidence, possibly fearing the need to start over.  

Her fears seem to have been justified. Her life in Stockholm, where she eventually settled, was a nightmare for a long while, living without position, acceptable lodging, or material comforts before getting re-established, her weight dropping at one point to 103 pounds.  While she could continue her theoretical work, she lacked the equipment to do anything experimental, relying on Hahn, who remained in Germany, to continue their experiments. Collaborating from afar, she (with Frisch) corrected Hahn’s errors and supplied the theoretical basis for Hahn’s experimental results (which often stymied him). 

Of most import was her accounting for the energy released by the Uranium when fractured (split) into lighter elements by conceiving of its nucleus as a “liquid drop” where all nuclear particles were drawn together by mutual attraction and surface tension. When disrupted, that split would trigger a host of “chain reactions .”Recalling the biological principle of “binary fission” as a descriptor for cell division, Frisch visualized the drop-like nucleus dividing like a living cell. Hence the name “fission.”

Hahn published their work jointly with chemist Fritz Strassman, omitting Lisë’s name and justifying it on various grounds.

“Fission was a discovery that relied on chemistry only and took place after Meitner left Berlin; she and physics had nothing to do with it except to prevent it from happening sooner.” – Otto Hahn

Initially, it was that the Nazism and racial politics of the day precluded public association with a Jewess. Later, Hahn manufactured an intellectual delusion which he clung to for the rest of his life: He denied any role of Lise’s work in “his” discovery, claiming that “fission was a discovery that relied on chemistry only”; that the work took place after Meitner had left Berlin. He also claimed that

 “[S]he and physics had nothing to do with it, except to prevent it from happening sooner. Hahn was believed: he was a Nobel laureate, and a very famous man. Strassman, very much in his shadow, saw it differently [noting that] … she remained one of them, through her correspondence with Hahn, even after she left…. Privately she viewed  Hahns’ behavior as simply suppressing the past,”  a response she and others apply generally to the Nazi era.

Like Emmy Noether, Lise never married, relishing her collegial friendships and immersion into the intellectual truths of physics.

“In the end, these were the only things she did not lose. Everything else - work, position, even, to a great degree, her scientific reputation – was taken from her when she fled Germany in the summer of 1938. Had she stayed longer, she would have lost her life as well.” 

- Biographer, Ruth Lewin Sime

Although nominated for a Nobel three times, it was not to be.  In 1997, Physics Today concluded that this omission constitutes “a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist” in awarding the Nobel.

Meitner’s work precipitated the Manhattan Project and the making of the atomic bomb. She flatly refused to work on the Project, : “I will have nothing to do with a bomb,” she is quoted as saying. Her epitaph, composed by nephew Frisch, simply reads: 

“Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”



[1] Electrons reside in sequential orbits around a nucleusencircling it like planets in the solar system move around the sun. “When an electron temporarily occupies an energy state greater than its ground state [like bumping up Mercury to live in Mars’ orbit], it is in an excited state. An electron can become excited if it is given extra energy, such as if it absorbs a photon, or packet, of light, or collides with a nearby atom or particle.” In the Auger effect, an electron in inner shell (orbit) is removed.

[2] Attendees of the Solvay Physics Conference, held in Brussels, Belgium, in 1933, included two future key Manhattan Project scientists (Fermi and Lawrence), the future head of the Nazi atomic bomb program (Heisenberg), and numerous leading pre-war physicists (Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac among others) 

[3] The originator of quantum theory

Source:  Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime


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