Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1912

I’d like to write a quick post about Lise Meitner. Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who became the first female physics professor in Germany. She worked with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where after many years she was finally allowed out of the basement and rose to become head of the physics department. Einstein referred to her as “the German Marie Curie.” It is now generally agreed that Meitner should have shared the Nobel Prize with Hahn, but there were some issues in evaluating interdisciplinary chemistry/physics research.

Meitner and her nephew, Frisch, were the first to figure out and articulate what exactly was happening when Enrico Fermi bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons. Fermi had been trying to create trans-uranic elements; it turned out he was splitting uranium–the first step in making a nuclear bomb.

When she made this discovery, Meitner and her nephew had just moved to Sweden–because the Nazis had kicked her out of her job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for being ethnically Jewish. (Even though she was a baptized Lutheran.)

Enrico Fermi fled Italy because his wife was Jewish, and at the University of Chicago he built the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor.

Nazi Germany did not recover, technologically, from the loss of its top scientists–men like Einstein, Fermi, and Bohr (technically Bohr fled Denmark after the Nazis took it over), women like Lise Meitner. They could have had the atomic bomb–instead they lost the war.