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Lise Meitner: Pacifist whose breakthrough led to the Atomic Bomb.

Albert Einstein called her, “German Marie Curie”. President Roosevelt requested her for help in building the Atom Bomb. The Nobel Prize committee snubbed her from Nobel Prize because she was a woman. She is Lise Meitner.

Childhood and education

Meitner was born in a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria. Her father is the first Jewish attorney in Austria. He was a progressive man who wanted his children to pursue higher education. As a young girl, Marie Curie inspired Meitner to study science. At those times, Girls could not enroll in higher education. So, her father paid a private tutor so that Meitner could be qualified for advanced degrees. That’s how she became the first woman to get a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna. After her doctorate, she again struggled to get a research fellowship. Vienna at the time was not very welcoming to females in academics.

Working under Max Planck

So, Lise Meitner moved to Berlin. Berlin, being a more advanced city was more welcoming to females. In 1907, she published a paper on nuclear atoms which got the attention of Max Planck. Max Planck was a man hesitant to work with women. But Meitner’s intellectual was magnetic. So, Max Planck invited her to study with him at the Friedrich Wilhelm University of Berlin. Within a year he asked her to join his scientific staff as an (unpaid) assistant. She worked without a salary until they appointed her as a full professor at 35.

Collaboration with Otto Hahn

As a professor, Meitner enters a research partnership with Otto Hahn, a German chemist. They were trying to create metal of heavier mass by bombarding with neutrons. Meitner doing physics work and Hahn was doing the chemistry work. Surprisingly, when Hahn conducted their experiment, they got the opposite result. The elements got lighter. But How? The answer lies in Physics.

During this time, Hitler’s treatment of Jews was getting worse. After Germany annexed Austria, Meitner couldn’t stay longer in Berlin. So, Meitner fled Germany to Sweden.

Lise Meitner and Hahn still collaborate through letters. When Meitner got the results from Hahn Meitner came up with a hypothesis.

Nuclear fission hypothesis

According to her Hypothesis, During the bombardment, the atom breaks apart into two atoms. This fission releases a tremendous amount of energy. So instead of getting heavier, it got lighter. Meitner wrote to Hahn explaining his hypothesis and ask him for experimental confirmation. Hahn confirmed Meitner’s theory, and he published the findings in 1942. However, Hahn did not mention Meitner’s name in the paper.

Nobel Prize snubbed

In 1944, Nobel Committee awarded Otto Hahn the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission of heavy nuclei. The Nobel committee never acknowledges her contribution. Even worse, Otto Hahn himself never acknowledge Meitner. Many believed that Hahn omits Meitner’s name in his paper because he couldn’t risk the possible repercussions of having a Jew’s name on this piece of research. Others believe it was because Meitner was a female.

Atom Bomb

In America, the famous theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein notice her worked on nuclear fission. The energy released during nuclear fission is tremendous – enough to power a bomb. Germany occupied Belgian Congo, the largest source of uranium. The Germans began to reserve the uranium for themselves. Einstein along with other American scientists become aware of the situation. So, they wrote a letter to President Roosevelt about their concerns. The letter also mentions Lise Meitner and her expertise.

Also Read, Albert Einstein’s greatest regret-letter to Roosevelt

President Roosevelt agreed to fund the research for the development of the Atom Bomb. President Roosevelt also reached out to Meitner for help in building the bomb. She replied, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb” She was a pacifist and she remained opposed to the use of a nuclear weapon for the rest of her life. She even criticized J. Robert Oppenheimer for his role in building a bomb.

She wrote of her despair and sorrow when she found out that her research is being used to build bombs.

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