Let's Talk About Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was a brilliant woman who discovered nuclear fission, which is splitting an atom such as Uranium or Plutonium into two equal pieces. But this would not be as interesting of a story if that was it. Alright, let’s begin.

After receiving her doctorate in Physics at the University of Vienna in 1906 and graduating Summa Cum Laude, Meitner attended Max Planck’s lectures at Berlin in 1907 and joined up with Otto Hahn in research on radioactivity. But before meeting Hahn, Meitner had a lot of trouble finding a partner to conduct her experiments with because she had terrible anxiety and was known to be very shy. This anxiety was also combined with the constant struggle of sexism that was predominant at the time. Women were barely able to go into the field of physics, let alone work in a lab. When she and Hahn first began working, the dean of the University wouldn’t allow Meitner in the lab because he thought she would set her hair on fire. She was reduced to working in a shed.

As time went on, Meitner eventually got to work in the lab, but another obstacle awaited her. You see, Meitner was a physics major, and Hahn was a chemist, they came from two different worlds. Since their work had more to do with chemistry, Meitner had to adapt, and boy did she adapt. She became the first female professor of physics in Germany. And she discovered radioactive recoil, finding that when an atomic nucleus emits an alpha particle, the nucleus will recoil like a gun that has fired a bullet. And implemented strict rules in the laboratories she ran to prevent radioactive contamination. She was a flame that was just starting to burn, but unfortunately, around this time, World War II had broken out. Meitner being Jewish, but also an Austrian citizen was able to stay on for a short while. Still, eventually, she was kicked out of the University of Berlin and had to flee. Scientists in the Netherlands arranged with the Dutch government for Meitner to be given an entry visa for the Netherlands, and she had to leave the life she worked so hard to create.

Despite being betrayed, Meitner continued working with Hahn through letters, and they collaborated this way. At the end of Dec. 1938, Meitner was walking one day in the snow when inspiration hit. She sat down in the woods and began calculating the energy involved when nuclei produced by uranium fission fly apart. Her calculated power was immense, and its source was Einstein’s famous equation: E = mc^2. Meitner realized that enough mass was converted to energy during nuclear fission to produce an enormous amount of energy. And bam, just like that Meitner created history, although she wouldn’t go down in history for it.

In 1944 Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering nuclear fission. Meitner retired to England in 1960, and eight years later, she died, with her tombstone bearing the inscription “A physicist who never lost her humanity.” The chemical element meitnerium was later named in her honor as a way of awarding the late scientist.

Meitner is one out of the thousands of women history forgets to mention in the textbooks. She made monumental strides towards modern-day physics while also fighting every obstacle that stood in her way, and now you all know her story and how much of a bad *ss she was.

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