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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 assistance in building the atom Bomb. She was snubbed from Nobel Prize because she was a woman.

So, who is this Lady?

Her name is Lise Meitner. 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, Meitner was inspired by Marie Curie to study science. At those times, Girls were not allowed to 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.

So, 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 extended an invitation 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 she was appointed as a full professor at the age of 35.

As a professor, Meitner enter into a research partnership with otto Hahn, a German chemist. They were trying to create a 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 Austria was annexed, Meitner couldn’t stay longer in Berlin. So, Meitner fled Germany to Sweden.

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

According to her Hypothesis, During the bombardment, the atom breaks apart into two atoms. During this fission, a huge amount of energy is released. 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, Meitner’s was not mentioned in the paper.

In 1944, Otto Hahn was awarded 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.

In America, the famous theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein become aware of her worked on nuclear fission. The energy released during nuclear fission is tremendous – enough to power a bomb. At the same time, Germany occupied Belgian Congo, the largest source of uranium at the time. 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 Meitner and her expertise.

President Roosevelt agreed to fund the research for the development of the Atom Bomb. President Roosevelt also reached out to Meitner for assistance 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 during the remainder 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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