Lise Meitner

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Working as a pioneer in a field to which few women were drawn—nuclear physics—Meitner’s joint research with chemist Otto Hahn (and later Fritz Strassmann) yielded the discovery of new radioactive elements and their properties and paved the way for the discovery of uranium fission.

Early Life

Lise Meitner was the third of eight children born to Hedwig Skovran and Philipp Meitner, a Viennese lawyer. Meitner had a very marked bent for mathematics and physics from a young age but did not begin her schooling immediately. This was partly because of prevailing attitudes in Vienna regarding the education of women. In order to regain the several years she had lost, she was tutored privately. After receiving a matriculation certificate from the Academic Gymnasium (high school) in Vienna, Meitner went on to the University of Vienna where, from 1901 until the end of 1905, she studied mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She decided early to concentrate on physics, realizing that she did not want to be a mathematician. During this time, she met with some rudeness from her fellows, since a female student was then regarded as something of a freak. In 1902, however, she had the good fortune to begin her study of theoretical physics under the stimulating and inspiring tutelage of Ludwig Boltzmann, who was a zealous advocate of atomic theory (the idea that all matter is composed of tiny, invisible, and, at that time at least, indivisible components). This was by no means generally accepted by physicists of the day, but in Boltzmann’s view the discovery of radioactivity supplied the experimental proof that tiny particles, or atoms, formed the building blocks of all things.

In 1905, Meitner finished her doctoral thesis on heat conduction in non-homogeneous bodies and became the second woman to receive a doctorate in science from the University of Vienna. She soon became familiar with the new field of radioactivity and was ready to enter the realm of atomic physics at the beginning of a promising new period in that branch of science.

Life’s Work

Though Meitner had no intention of making the study of radioactivity her specialty, this would become her life’s work. After graduation, she persuaded her parents to allow her to go to Berlin to study with the theoretical physicist Max Planck for a few terms, but the intended short stay became a thirty-one-year period of research pushing back the frontiers of atomic physics and radioactivity.

Meitner arrived in Berlin in 1907 and enrolled in Planck’s lectures. He was one of the world’s most notable scientists, having developed the theory of thermal radiation (or quantum theory) in 1900 and having been one of the first to recognize and stress the importance of Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Meitner spoke of him not only with respect and admiration but also with much affection. Yet as important as Meitner’s association with Planck was, it was her friendship and her long and productive collaboration with Otto Hahn that would change the course of atomic science.

Meitner and Hahn also met in 1907, and, finding that she had the opportunity for experimentation, Meitner decided she wanted to work with Hahn and keep to the study of radioactivity. After some persuasion, they finally received permission from Emil Fischer, the director of the Chemical Institute of Berlin where Hahn was working, to become a research team with the provision that Meitner promise not to go into the chemistry department, where the male students did their research and where Hahn conducted his chemical experiments. For the first few years, their joint research was confined to a small room originally planned as a carpenter’s shop. When women’s education was officially sanctioned and regulated in Germany in 1909, Fischer gave permission at once for Meitner to enter the chemistry department. In later years, he was most kind to and supportive of Meitner, eventually helping her to establish and become head of the new department of radiation physics in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in 1917.

In 1912, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry was opened as a part of the University of Berlin, and Hahn became a member. Meitner became an assistant to Max Planck at the university’s Institute for Theoretical Physics. Far from ending their cooperative effects, this development meant that the Meitner-Hahn partnership could continue with greater facilities and an enlarged staff. Their collaboration was a fruitful one for both of them. Hahn, a future Nobel laureate, brought to the team a splendid knowledge of organic chemistry; Meitner brought an expertise in theoretical physics and mathematics. Together they would be responsible for some important advances, including their 1917 discovery of the rare radioactive element 91, protactinium.

Though World War I did not dramatically affect her in a personal way, Meitner maintained that physics during World War I changed decisively because of Niels Bohr’s work on the structure of the atom. In her opinion, his research on the atomic nucleus gave an extraordinary impetus to the development of nuclear physics itself, finally leading to the fission of uranium. She first met Bohr in 1920 and got to know him personally a year later. Her respect and gratitude stemmed not only from her opinion that no one—not even the great Ernest Rutherford—had such a worldwide influence on physicists as Bohr but also from the great efforts extended by him to regain for Germans admittance to scientific conferences, from which they had been strictly excluded in the postwar years. In the years following their first meetings, Meitner took part in many of Bohr’s famous conferences, which were held at almost annual intervals in Copenhagen and at which were discussed new advances in physics and neighboring fields.

From 1917...

(The entire section is 2427 words.)