Lise Meitner

From New World Encyclopedia

Lise Meitner ca. 1928.

Lise Meitner (November 17, 1878 – October 27, 1968) was an Austrian born Swedish physicist who studied radioactivity and nuclear physics. Her deepest motivation was to pursue truth through scientific investigation for the benefit of humanity. This altruistic spirit places Lise Meitner among the most high-minded scientists in the history of science. She combined her passion for thorough research with her creative imagination to unlock the secrets of the atom. Meitner deserves credit for her formulation of the theory which led to an understanding of how to unlock the energy within the atom. She was one of the pioneers of the atomic energy age, but she refused to join the Manhattan Project because, given her moral convictions, she did not wish to work on a bomb.


Meitner and Otto Hahn working together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.

Lise Meitner was born into a Jewish family as the third of eight children, in Vienna. Her father, Philipp Meitner, was one of the first Jewish lawyers in Austria, a man who became socially and politically active in spite of antisemitism. Lise's parents encouraged all of the children to pursue educational opportunities, although during that era most women were not permitted to attain much more than a basic education. At an early age, Lise expressed her interests in mathematics and physics and preferred to think for herself rather than accept information on mere authority.

Meitner completed teacher training (at the suggestion of her father) and then began to prepare for higher education at the University level. She was a member of a small group of like-minded women who studied under the tutelage of Dr. Arthur Szarvassy, a graduate of the University of Vienna, whom she credited for introducing her to the real world of experimental physics.

Lise entered the University of Vienna in 1901, but her interest in physics solidified when she heard the lectures of theoretical physicist Ludwig Botlzmann. Her devotion to the pursuit of truth through scientific research was forged during this period of her life. Boltzmann was an "atomist" famous for developing kinetic theory and the statistical analysis of the motion of atoms. His ideas met great resistance from most physicists of his time and he battled the prevalent view of logical positivism in science. Logical positivism maintained that phenomena that could not directly be seen did not exist. Theoretical physicists pushed the limits of the visible in order to advance the pursuit of truth. They then sought to justify or disprove the theories through rigorous experimentation.

Lise Meitner graduated summa cum laude in 1906, with a doctoral degree in Physics. She gained recognition after presenting her research on heat conduction through solids and her thesis was published by the Vienna Physics Institute. Later that year, Meitner designed experiments with alpha (positive) particles which she used to bombard various elements showing that scattering was greater with elements that had a larger atomic mass. Meeting with German physicist Max Planck, who visited her lab in Vienna, inspired her to move to Berlin for further studies. While still in Austria (in 1907), some of her experimental results on scattering were published in the Physical Chemistry Journal (Hamilton, 2002).

In Berlin, Meitner studied with Planck at the University of Berlin where she met a young chemist named Otto Hahn. Hahn and Meitner shared an interest in radioactivity and the two scientists began to collaborate in research at the Berlin Institute, where Hahn managed to find lab space for Lise. They studied beta radiation and published several articles in 1908 and 1909. In 1912, Meitner and Hahn moved their research to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. World War I began in the summer of 1914.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, Meitner and Hahn had been investigating what they assumed would be a link between two radioactive elements, Actinium and Uranium. They published their findings in 1918, having discovered an element they named "protactinium." Nearing the age of 40, Meitner was given charge of her own physics department. During an era when science was seen as a handmaiden for industry or war, Lise Meitner, along with others including Albert Einstein and Max Planck, saw scientific research as an idealistic pursuit for the sake of discovering the truth of natural phenomena.

The discovery of natural radioactivity by Antoine-Henri Becquerel had opened the door to the study of phenomena which could not be directly seen with the naked eye. Theoretical physics developed an approach to the discovery of truth using such means as cloud chambers and spectroscopy to observe and test results of the activities of particles and energies which could not be directly witnessed. With the discovery of the neutron in the early 1930s, speculation arose in the scientific community that it might be possible to create elements heavier than uranium (atomic number 92) in the laboratory. A scientific race began between Ernest Rutherford in Britain, Irene Joliot-Curie in France, Enrico Fermi in Italy, and the Meitner-Hahn team in Berlin. At the time, all concerned believed that this was abstract research for the probable honor of a Nobel prize. None suspected that this research would culminate in nuclear weapons.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Meitner was acting director of the Institute for Chemistry. Although she was protected by her Austrian citizenship, all other Jewish scientists, including her nephew, Otto Frisch, Haber, Leo Szilard, and many other eminent figures, were dismissed or forced to resign from their posts—most of them emigrating. Her response was to say nothing and bury herself in her work. In 1946, she acknowledged that, "It was not only stupid but also very wrong that I did not leave at once."[1]

After the Anschluss, her situation became desperate. In July 1938, Meitner, with help from the Dutch physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, escaped to Holland. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border, where Coster persuaded German immigration officers that she had permission to travel to the Netherlands. She reached safety, though without her possessions. (Lise later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse.) Before she left, Otto Hahn had given her a diamond ring he had inherited from his mother: This was to be used to bribe the frontier guards if required. It was not required and Lise's nephew's wife now proudly wears this ring.

Lise was extremely lucky to escape, as Kurt Hess, a chemist who was an avid Nazi, had informed the authorities that she was about to flee. However, unknown friends checked only after they knew Lise was safe.

An appointment at Groningen University did not come through, and she went instead to Stockholm, where she took up a post at Manne Siegbahn's laboratory, despite the difficulty caused by Siegbahn's prejudice against women in science. Here she established a working relationship with Niels Bohr, who travelled regularly between Copenhagen and Stockholm. She continued to correspond with Hahn and other German scientists.[2]

Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen, in November, to plan a new round of experiments; in this regard they subsequently exchanged a series of letters. The experiments which provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory (using what had been Meitner's equipment) in Berlin. This surviving correspondence indicates that at that time, Hahn believed nuclear fission was impossible. She was the first person to realize that the nucleus of an atom could be split into smaller parts: Uranium nuclei had split to form barium and krypton, accompanied by the ejection of several neutrons and a large amount of energy (the latter two products accounting for the loss in mass).

A letter from Bohr, commenting on the fact that the amount of energy released when he bombarded uranium atoms was far larger than had been predicted by calculations based on a non-fissile core, had sparked the above inspiration in December of 1938. Hahn claimed that his chemistry had been solely responsible for the discovery, although he had been unable to explain the results.

It was politically impossible for the exiled Meitner to publish jointly with Hahn in 1939. Hahn published the chemical findings in January 1939, and Meitner published the physical explanation two months later with her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch, and named the process "nuclear fission."[3] Meitner recognized the possibility for a chain reaction of enormous explosive potential. This report had an electrifying effect on the scientific community. Because this could be used as a weapon, and since the knowledge was in German hands, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and Eugene Wigner together jumped into action, persuading Albert Einstein, who had the celebrity, to write President Franklin D. Roosevelt a warning letter; this led directly to the establishment of the Manhattan Project. Meitner refused an offer to work on the project at Los Alamos, declaring "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"[4]

In 1944, Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. In the opinion of many scientists, Meitner should have shared the prize. The omission may have been due to Hahn's public claims that the discovery was solely the work of chemistry; speculation also persists that—as Siegbahn was a Nobel committee member—his antipathy toward Meitner played a role as well. However, in 1966, Hahn, Fritz Strassmann, and Meitner together were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. On a visit to the United States in 1946, she received American press celebrity treatment as someone who had "left Germany with the bomb in my purse." She was honored as "Woman of the Year" by the National Women's Press Club (U.S.) in 1946, and received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949.

After the war, Meitner, while acknowledging her own moral failing in staying in Germany from 1933 to 1938, was bitterly critical of Hahn and other German scientists who had collaborated with the Nazis and done nothing to protest against the crimes of Hitler's regime. Referring to the leading German scientist, Werner Heisenberg, she said: "Heisenberg and many millions with him should be forced to see these camps and the martyred people." She wrote to Hahn:

Lise's Grave in Bramley

You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you tried to offer only a passive resistance. Certainly, to buy off your conscience you helped here and there a persecuted person, but millions of innocent human beings were allowed to be murdered without any kind of protest being uttered… [it is said that] first you betrayed your friends, then your children in that you let them stake their lives on a criminal war—and finally that you betrayed Germany itself, because when the war was already quite hopeless, you did not once arm yourselves against the senseless destruction of Germany.[5]

Meitner became a Swedish citizen in 1949, but moved to Britain in 1960, and died in Cambridge in 1968. As was her wish, she was buried in the village of Bramley in Hampshire, at St. James parish church, close to her beloved younger brother Walter, who had died in 1964. Her nephew Otto Robert Frisch composed the very appropriate inscription on her headstone: It reads "Lise Meitner: A physicist who never lost her humanity." Element 109 is named Meitnerium in her honor.


At a time when women scientists were almost unheard of and there was much prejudice toward women in science, Meitner was a nuclear physicist and became one of the pioneers of the atomic energy age, working on both the theoretical and experimental aspects of nuclear fission. She was one of the first to realize that an atomic nucleus can be split, generating enormous amounts of energy. She ran her own physics department in Berlin, and later, when Hitler came to power, she was Acting Director of the Institute of Chemistry in Berlin. She managed to escape from Germany just before the Nazi ax came down on her. She later reflected that she should have resisted Hitler sooner and was critical of other scientists who continued to justify their neutrality during the period of the Third Reich. When the U.S. government offered her a position on the Manhattan Project, she declined, on moral grounds, to join the efforts to work on an atomic bomb. She overcame enormous obstacles to become successful without compromising her humanity.


  1. Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 207-13.
  2. Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 214-15
  3. Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch, "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction, Nature, volume 143, 239-240.
  4. Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (University of California Press, 1996), 305.
  5. Cornwell, Hitler's Scientists, 411.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Frisch, Otto Robert, ed. 1959. Trends in Atomic Physics: Essays Dedicated to Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue on the Occasion of their 80th Birthday. New York: Interscience.
  • Hamilton, Janet. 2002. Lise Meitner, Pioneer of Nuclear Fission. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers. ISBN 0766017567
  • Lewin Sime, Ruth. 1996. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0520089065
  • Rife, Patricia. 1999. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Boston: Birkhäuser. ISBN 081763732X
  • Yount, Lisa. 1996. Twentieth Century Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0816031738


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