The brilliant Lise Meitner was the mother of nuclear power, but
you've probably never heard of her! Her research contributed
greatly to the discovery of nuclear fission. It could even be said
that even though she didn't find all the pieces herself she most
certainly put the puzzle together.
So why isn't she more famous?
Unfortunately, this is because of a glaring oversight by the
Nobel Committee who awarded the prize to her colleague Otto Hahn
who won the prize for chemistry. Sadly, her name wasn't even
mentioned at the ceremony. This mistake has never been admitted by
the Committee and some people believe it was one of the biggest
oversights the Nobel committee has ever made.
Meitner was the second woman to gain a higher degree in Austria.
Back in those days, women were not allowed into higher education so
it was a big deal. She later moved to Berlin to continue her
studies. It was here that she met chemist Otto Hahn. In 1912
Meitner and Hahn moved to the new and cutting edge Kaiser Wilhelm
Institute for Chemistry.
Meitner worked in a cupboard next to the lab without pay for a
year as a 'guest'. It wasn't until she was offered work elsewhere
that they gave her a permanent position. Meitner and Hahn
worked together closely and in 1917 they discovered a new element:
protactinium. As her research continued she became part of
the scientific race to try and create an element heavier than
uranium. This sparked the initial stages toward the discovery of
nuclear power, but no one involved suspected the huge impact it
Meitner was Jewish, and this was not a good thing to be in 1930s
Germany! When World War Two began in 1938, Meitner fled just in
time to escape Hitler's death camps. She travelled to Sweden
and continued her research although she had little equipment or
resources. She kept in touch with Hahn who was still trying
to create ultra heavy elements. At the time Hahn was working with
Meitner, Hahn and Strassmann kept on getting results that were
baffling. Every time they stuck a neutron onto a heavy Uranium
nucleus they seemed to end with something that was lighter! Meitner
realised that the extra neutron wasn't sticking to the uranium, but
smashing it in two smaller pieces and soon realised it had the
potential to unleash unimaginable amounts of energy. In 1938, this
was considered impossible by every respectable scientist.
A certain Albert Einstein had also been following Meitner's work
and in 1939 he wrote a letter to the American president, Franklin
D. Roosevelt, explaining what it meant. Einstein feared that
Germany would make an atomic bomb before the allies. This led
directly to the setting up of the 'Manhattan' project that
developed the first atomic bomb only six years later.
Meitner always regretted her part in the creation of the atomic
bomb, also called the 'destroyer of worlds'. She refused to work on
the project. When she heard about Hiroshima she was devastated.
She carried on with her research and helped produce one of the
first peacetime nuclear reactors. It wasn't until 1966 that
Meitner really received any attention. During her 60 years of
work in the field of atomic physics she wrote 128 articles, and
served on the United Nations Committee on atomic energy. In 1992 it
was announced that she would have an element named after her,
meitnerium. So there you are, Lise Meitner, probably the best
scientist you'd never heard of!