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EPS Nuclear Physics Division - Life of Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 into a family of Austrian citizens and brought up in a liberal atmosphere. Her father, Dr. Philipp Meitner, was a lawyer of Jewish origin. In order to obtain a university qualification she was obliged to take private courses because at that time girls were not admitted to the gymnasium. She took her "Matura" in 1901. In 1902 she became one of the first female students to study physics in Vienna. There she listened to lectures by L. Boltzman, who had a big influence on her ambition to continue as a physicist. She completed her Dr. Thesis in theoretical physics in 1905, and became the second woman to receive such a degree in Vienna.

In 1907 she moved to Berlin in order to "increase her true understanding of physics". She was "permitted" to hear lectures by Max. Planck, with whom she kept contact throughout her life. Soon after coming to Berlin, she became "collaborator" of the chemist Otto Hahn in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She was, however, not supposed to use the main entry of the Institute, and Otto Hahn installed a laboratory in a shack ("Holzwerkstatt"). Photographs of this site are well known.

The collaboration was extremely fruitful. As the physicist in the partnership Lise Meitner was the driving force. Many important publications emerged from this period of her life. In 1913 she became a Scientific Member of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (a permanent position). From 1918 she was responsible of her own group in the radio-physical laboratory of the KW-Institut in Berlin-Dahlem (the building still exists). In 1918 Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discovered element Z=91, which they named "Protactinium", because it was the missing link between the elements Uranium (Z=92) and Actinium (Z=89).

She looked set for a brilliant future in science. In famous photographs taken at the SOLVAY-congresses in Bruessels we see her in the first row among the first rank of scientists of that time (90% of them got the Nobel prize). She was awarded the title of Professor in 1928, but because of her Jewish origin, this was withdrawn from her in 1933/34.

As an Austrian citizen, she stayed in Germany until 1938 under the Nazi regime. When Austria was occupied she escaped to Sweden (without an exit visa) with the help of Dutch colleagues. She missed participation in the discovery of fission by only 6 months. Nuclear fission was discovered by Otto Hahn and Strassman by very careful chemical separation techniques. The culmination of the collaboration of Hahn and Meitner was published without her name, possibly also for political reasons. In 1939 she published the first interpretation of nuclear fission with her nephew Otto Frisch who coined the term "fission".

Her life in Sweden was difficult. In the second half of the last century, women were seldom seen in leading positions in science. She became Professor of Physics in Stockholm (S) at the age of 67, and acquired Swedish citizenship in 1948. In 1960 she moved to Cambridge (England) in order to live close to her nephew Otto Frisch , she died there in 1968 and is buried in England.

Only in the late stages of her life was she honoured by various national and international institutions and received high ranking prizes. To mentioned only the last one, the Enrico Fermi Award of the USA in 1966, which was given to the team Hahn, Meitner and Strassmann. In 1945 the Nobel Prize for Chemistry (not Physics) for the discovery of fission was given to Otto Hahn alone. Her life and work has received more attention recently. Articles about her life have appeared in Physics Today (Sept. 1997, p. 26) and Scientific American (Jan. 1998, p. 58). In Germany, schools (and gymnasia) in more than 10 cities bear her name. In the state of Hessen, a Lise Meitner prize, which provides support for women in the natural sciences, has been awarded for 7 years. The Technische Universität Wien has a literature prize (Lise Meitner Literaturpreis) for texts written by female authors with emphasis on technical issues and science. In 1998 the Institute of Physics of the Humboldt University of Berlin created a Lise Meitner prize for outstanding PhD Thesis work. This was recently awarded for the second time.

Lise Meitner
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