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Science’s Most Elusive Women: Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn. She the physicist and he the chemist; her creative, theoretical models and analyses based on his exacting chemical evidence; a perfect pair of scientific thinkers. Meitner’s reputation soared with the couple’s co-discovery of an isotope of protactinium, element 91, and her legacy seemed assured. She was the second woman to receive a doctoral degree from the University of Vienna, and then a prestigious faculty appointment. She gained recognition from early twentieth century luminous Berlin physicists including Max Planck, and from Albert Einstein, who hailed her as “our Marie Curie.”

Born into a Jewish family in Vienna, Meitner’s tragic exclusion from history began with her exile from Germany following the Nazi invasion of Austria, despite her conversion to Protestantism years before. Though geographically separated from Hahn, she continued to develop the theoretical model of the process from Stockholm, through correspondence and a secret meeting in Copenhagen.

Yet in 1939, the chemical evidence of nuclear fission—the halving of atomic nuclei—was published in Nature only under the authorship of Hahn and additional collaborator Fritz Strassman, leading to Hahn’s sole Nobel Prize for the discovery. Meitner’s direction of these experiments, and subsequent physical explanation and naming of the process went unrecognized. Her absence from Hahn’s landmark publication was initially thought to be a protective measure against the Nazi regime, but this explanation has been questioned, and falls short of explaining his continued denial of her involvement long past the war. Further puzzling is Meitner’s lack of protest, and her sustained relationship with her colleague. She has been quoted by her biographer, Ruth Sime, as privately saying that Hahn was “simply suppressing the past… I am part of that suppressed past.”

Her involvement was only recognized by Strassman, who insisted upon her intellectual leadership of the project, and more recently, a larger community of scientists and historians who have added their voices. Following the discovery of nuclear fission, Meitner was outspoken in protest of her misidentification as the “mother of the atomic bomb”. But both her relationship with Hahn and her abdication of credit for what appeared to be her work would remain an unsettling mystery.

Element 109, ‘Meitnerium’, is named in her honor.

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