Lise Meitner: The Physicist Who Discovered Nuclear Fission

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was one of the most important female physicists of the 20th century and is often overlooked in the world of science. She was a leader in the field of nuclear physics and is most well-known for co-discovering nuclear fission in 1939. Meitner’s work greatly impacted modern science and her discoveries are still used today in the field of nuclear physics.

Early Life

Lise Meitner was born on November 7th, 1878 in Vienna, Austria. She came from a Jewish family, with her father being a lawyer and her mother an avid reader. Her brother, Otto, would eventually pursue a career in engineering. Lise was a naturally curious and talented student, and at the age of 15 she graduated high school with honors. She then went on to study physics at the University of Vienna, a university open only to men at the time, but as she was able to attend as a private student.

Career in Physics

After finishing her studies at the University of Vienna in 1902, Lise joined the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute in the same year. There began her remarkable career in the field of physics, with her becoming an associate professor at the University of Berlin by 1907. Meitner was one of the first female physics professors in the world. In 1912, she became an official member of the Prussian academy of sciences, receiving the same treatment as her male colleagues.

Throughout her career, Meitner made several ground-breaking discoveries in multiple areas of physics, including radioactivity, nuclear structure, and the decay of atomic nuclei. In 1921, she worked with a team of physicists to discover nuclear isomerism, and then studied the effects of radiation on protons and neutrons with Austrian scientist, Otto Hahn.

Discovery of Nuclear Fission

Meitner’s most recognized achievement was her discovery of nuclear fission with Hahn in 1939. Nuclear fission is a process in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two or more lighter nuclei and releases an enormous amount of energy. This process is the basis of many modern technologies, including nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons.

When Meitner and Hahn made their breakthrough discovery, they were unaware of its importance. It was not until 1940, when a German chemist, Otto Robert Frisch, put together the pieces of the puzzle. He wrote a paper describing the process of nuclear fission and how much it could produce energy. Meitner and Hahn were both co-authors on the paper, but Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery.

Later Life of Lise Meitner

Meitner’s career was greatly disrupted by World War II and the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. In 1938, Meitner made the difficult decision to leave Germany and flee to Sweden. There, she continued her work in physics, leading a group of German refugee scientists working on the study of nuclear physics.

In the years after the war, Meitner was increasingly overlooked and underappreciated for the important discoveries she had made in nuclear physics. She received little recognition during her lifetime, with her only major acknowledgments coming in 1957 when she was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award and the Max Planck Medal.

Meitner eventually died in 1968 at the age of 89 in Cambridge, England, where she had lived for many years. In the following years, she slowly gained more recognition for her pivotal role in discovering nuclear fission. In 1997, Element 109 was renamed Meitnerium in her honor.

Legacy of Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was a remarkable figure in the history of science, making significant discoveries and demonstrating immense courage in the face of adversity. Despite the obstacles she faced, Meitner was determined to continue her research and made an immense contribution to the field of nuclear physics.

Her discoveries were monumental for the advancement of modern science, making it possible for nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. When the consequences of such technologies are considered, it is easy to see that Lise Meitner had a huge influence on the world we live in today.

Meitner’s legacy also serves to inspire young women in the field of science and remind them that anything is possible. Her story is an important reminder of the importance of female representation and involvement in the sciences and the incredible impact that women can have.

Lise Meitner stands out as one of the most important figures in the history of science. Her discoveries were groundbreaking and her courage inspirational. Thanks to her bravery and her ingenuity, nuclear fission was discovered and led to the development of important modern technologies. While Meitner is often overlooked in the world of science, her legacy remains an important reminder of the incredible contributions women can make to science and to the world.