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Woman in Science: Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was one of the first women in science and was very influential.
Photo courtesy of Wired

Lise Meitner was born on November 7, 1878 in Austria to a relatively wealthy family situated in Vienna. From the age of eight, it was pretty clear that her future was geared towards math and science. Although women in the twentieth century were not able to receive a formal education, her parents were able to tutor her privately in physics.

In 1905, Meitner went on to study at the University of Vienna to obtain a doctorate degree in physics. She worked very hard studying both the math and science fields, since she did not know which area she wanted to pursue. When she graduated, she became the second woman to ever receive a doctorate degree in physics. After her doctorate, she sat in on classes taught by Max Planck at Wilhelm’s University in Berlin to further her understanding of physics and eventually went on to become his assistant. There, she discovered new isotopes and radioactive recoil, in which the nucleus is removed at the start of radioactive decay.

Later on, she co-discovered the element protactinium, the Auger effect, and then became the head of physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. At KWI, Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission, in which a uranium atom absorbs a neutron and becomes two completely new atoms. This was one of her biggest discoveries and for it she was even dubbed “German Marie Curie” by Albert Einstein.

When Hitler rose in power in 1933, working became difficult for her. She continued her research until the 1938, Anschluss, or Nazi takeover of Austria. She left Germany with virtually nothing, and started her life over at Manne Siegbahn’s lab, where she began to work with Niels Bohr. There, Meitner worked alongside other male scientists to further the discovery of fission, which eventually aided the Manhattan Project. In 1945, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fission and Meitner was not because Hahn had talked Meitner’s work down after her escape from Germany.

After World War II, she maintained her friendship with Otto Hahn and retired in 1960. In 1964, Meitner had a heart attack and then developed atherosclerosis. She eventually died in 1968, but her mark on the scientific world is still alive today.

By Kate Della Pietra’18, Guest Writer

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