Lise Meitner

Just over a month ago, a number of scholars, researchers, writers and countries were acknowledged for their contributions to their various fields with the award of the Nobel Prize. Throughout its history, the Nobel Prize has been surrounded by various controversies regarding significant achievement going unrecognized. Perhaps one of the most glaring oversights of the Nobel Committee is that of Lise Meitner.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna to a Jewish family in 1878, a time when educational opportunities for women were extremely limited. Regardless, with family support, Meitner went on to study physics and became only the second woman to earn a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna. After this achievement, she moved to Berlin and began working with chemist Otto Hahn. This partnership would persist off and on for decades, and eventually Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany with the assistance of Hahn, Niels Bohr, and other friends and noted researchers.

Meitner and Hahn

Otto Hahn and fellow scientist Fritz Strassmann pursued a round of experiments regarding the bombardment of uranium nuclei with the newly discovered neutron particle. While Hahn and Strassmann published their findings, they were somewhat unable to interpret them. Due to the political situation in Europe, Meitner was unable to publish there her correct interpretation of Hahn and Strassman’s findings as nuclear fission. Instead, Meitner and her nephew published these findings in the journal Nature. The Sheridan Libraries owns, as part of the Hinkes Collection, the journal issue wherein Meitner publishes this explanation.

Although Meitner’s achievements may have been overlooked by the Nobel Committee, her influence lives on to this day. After the creation of transactinide element 109 in 1982, in 1997, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry certified its naming as Meitnerium.

Those interested in the history of nuclear physics should further consult the impressive body of articles found in the Hinkes Collection. And, for more biographical information about all of these important scientists, consult the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography.

One thought on “Overlooked Genius

  1. Meitner and Hahn’s careers are covered in the Sam Kean’s book, “The Disappearing Spoon” (call # QD 466.K37 2010).

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