Dear Ally,

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Studying Physics is a Privilege

Dear Ally,

Welcome to your junior year!

I’m so excited you are taking physics this semester. It’s the perfect time to tell you about a woman who most people consider to be the most significant woman scientist of the 20th century – Lise Meitner.

Lise was born in 1878, when people didn’t think women needed an education past junior high, after all, what more did they need to prepare them to raise a family and run a household? In fact, the University of Vienna didn’t even allow women to enroll until 1897. But Lise did enroll in 1901, fell in love with physics, and became the second woman to earn her doctorate there.

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You’d think at this point that she’s made it, but her job prospects were nil. Her first job was unpaid, which is a common thread in many early women scientists’ stories. So she moved to Berlin and was allowed to sit in on Max Planck’s class (who later won the 1918 Nobel Prize in physics and whose name you will hear in your class). She became good friends with many of her physics colleagues and would hang out at Max Planck’s house and listen to him play the piano and Albert Einstein (!) play the violin.

It was at the University of Berlin where she met Otto Hahn, with whom she developed a productive 30+ year collaboration. Hahn was a chemist, so he prepared the radioactive materials they studied, while Meitner explained the math and physics behind their discoveries.  Together they discovered the element protactinium in 1918.

All of this in spite of the fact that Emil Fischer (1902 Nobel Prize in chemistry), chair of the chemistry department, would not allow women into his laboratory, or pretty much anywhere in the building. Lise was given an isolated room in the basement with an external door. If she needed to use the restroom, she walked down the street to a nearby restaurant. Although her physics colleagues accepted her, Lise’s chemistry colleagues completely ignored her and would only address Otto when they were together.

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Remember that she’s in Germany and, if you remember your history, the next thing she has to deal with is Hitler and the Nazis. Lise was born Jewish. She later converted to Protestantism, but this made little difference. Many of her scientist friends, including Einstein, got out when they had the chance, but she stayed – too long.  She eventually had to be smuggled out with the help of Hahn, who gave her his mother’s diamond ring, Dirk Coster (discoverer of hafnium), and Niels Bohr (1922 Nobel Prize in physics). Once she was safely out of Germany, Coster sent a telegram to Hahn telling him that the “baby” had arrived.

Lise bounced around after that and could never again get a lab going, but she continued to collaborate and correspond with Hahn. He could not explain why he was obtaining barium after bombarding uranium with neutrons. She understood and had the math to back it up and explain the physics behind the phenomenon.  Her nephew, Otto Frisch, coined the term nuclear fission, analogous to biological cell division.

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After the discovery of nuclear fission, Meitner was given the opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project (the one that created the A-bomb and probably won the war). She refused saying she would have nothing to do with a bomb.

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Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry “for the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei” and Lise Meitner’s contribution (which she had published in 1939) was ignored. What is known as the Nobel mistake was somewhat rectified in 1966 when Hahn, Meitner, and Straussmann were awarded the Enrico Fermi Award. In 1997, element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.

Good luck this semester in physics! Remember to enjoy it!

Aunt Sarah

P.S. This is a very abridged version of an interesting biography. Here are some links to read more, but there are also entire books written about her life.

The Abduction of Lise Meitner (about her escape from Germany)

Who is Lise Meitner?

Lise Meitner (1878-1868)

Lise Meitner Wikipedia page (with an exhaustive list of references)