Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

The mother of nuclear power

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 would have.

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 Fritz Strassmann.

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!