biography · Chrisitan woman · thoughts · woman of faith · women

it was a woman physicist who discovered the power of nuclear energy

Lisa-Meitner“Racial and gender prejudice are dramatic backdrops to our modern era. The dramatic splitting of the atom—“nuclear fission”—was a discovery which changed our world. Yet few know that it was a woman physicist who discovered the power of nuclear energy just after her dramatic escape from Nazi Germany. The irony of the story of Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968) is that her laboratory partner of thirty years, Otto Hahn, who remained in Berlin throughout the Third Reich, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944. Meitner’s exclusion from sharing the Nobel Prize was thus integrally related to her escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden and the consequent social ‘marginalization’ of her important physics research and discoveries. Albert Einstein called the respected Viennese pioneer in nuclear physics “our Madame Curie.” (Above quoted from

The brilliant Lise Meitner was the mother of nuclear power, but you’ve probably never heard of her! Her research contributed greatly to the discovery of nuclear fission. She was an Austrian physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Otto Hahn and Meitner led the small group of scientists who first discovered nuclear fission of uranium when it absorbed an extra neutron; the results were published in early 1939.

Lise Meitner was one of eight children. When she finished school at age 14, she was barred from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. When Lise showed an early propensity for mathematics, she was privately tutored, her father insisting that each of his daughters receive the same education as his sons. (Three of Lise’s sisters later also earned their Ph.D. degrees). Inspired by the discoveries of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was determined to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. For several years she was not permitted access to the laboratories of the Berlin Institute for Chemistry where she worked as an unpaid research scientist (1907–1912)

In 1912, Hahn and Meitner moved to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities. Meitner became an official University Lecturer in 1922, but even in liberalizing Berlin the press jokingly reported the topic of her inaugural speech as “Cosmetic Physics” instead of cosmic physics. She led several courses in quantum physics with her outstanding graduate students (such as Leo Szilard and Max Delbrueck) as assistants, until Adolf Hitler’s decrees in April, 1933 stripped Jewish academics of their professorial positions.

At first she was an unpaid “guest” under Hahn, but most people knew they were equals in their research team. From 1924 to 1934, the team gained international prestige and were nominated for the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for ten consecutive years. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, Hahn and Meitner continued to collaborate.

Meitner continued her work in Sweden. After Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, Meitner and her nephew Frisch took a hike in the snowy Swedish woods, animatedly discussing the puzzling “bursting” process. Then they realized: if E=mc2, that mass could not be lost, but the nucleus would be “split in two.”. She calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner was left out by the Awarding Committee.

She carried on with her research and helped produce one of the first peacetime nuclear reactors. It wasn’t until 1966 that Meitner really received any attention. During her 60 years of work in the field of atomic physics she wrote 128 articles, and served on the United Nations Committee on atomic energy. In 1992 it was announced that she would have an element named after her, meitnerium. Meitner spent most of her 70s and 80s traveling, encouraging women students to “remember that science can bring both joy and satisfaction to your life.”

Lise’s parents were assimilated Viennese Jews, who did not practice Judaism. In 1908 on a visit to Vienna Lise formally withdrew from the Jewish community and was baptized at the Evangelical Congregation.

(The above biography is compiled from information/excerpts from Wikipedia and Jewish Women encyclopedia)

Reading the above makes me marvel at the courage and determination of this woman whose ability and worth as an individual overcame the male chauvinistic social and economic culture and racial prejudices of her time. She was a woman and a Jew. These went against her in that time. She was made to work and research without pay and under harsh physical condition. She was not given a recognition which she rightly deserved. She was threatened with her life. But all these did not stop her from becoming a woman of great worth, perhaps not in monetary terms, but in the history of mankind. She will not be forgotten. She became a model of overcomer.


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