Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner(1878-1968) was an Austrian-Swedish physicist who first identified nuclear fission. Despite her great contribution to the sciences, she was not offered Nobel Prize.

In 1992, several years after her death, physicists named their 109th element "Ëśmeitnerium' in honor of Lise Meitner, finally giving her the official recognition she deserved.

Lise Meitner was born in 1878 in a liberal Viennese family. Since the Viennese system of education did not allow girls to enter high school from 1892 to 1901 she had to struggle a lot to get her education. The Viennese government opened high schools for girls in 1899. Her father hired a tutor to prepare her for university entrance when she was 21 years old. In these two years she completed 8 years' worth of school syllabus.

In 1901 the Viennese government opened universities to women and Meitner enrolled there.

Around 1905 she started studying radioactivity. In 1906 she received her doctorate. She went to Germany to pursue further studies in physics under the guidance of Max Planck. She stayed in Germany for the next 31 years, contributing a lot to German science.

During this time she met Otto Hahn, a German chemist who was working on radioactivity for Prof. Emil Fischer's chemistry institute. Meitner collaborated with him to work on radioactivity. However, since Fischer did not allow women to enter the institute she had to perform her experiments in the basement of the institute. Two years later she was allowed to use the institute.

Often people, even the well-known scientists during that time, refused to give her due credit for her work, since she was a woman. Hahn insisted that she get full recognition for her contribution in their joint work.

In 1912 she and Hahn moved to a new Kaiser Wilhelm chemistry institute. During the same time Max Planck gave her an assistantship, which was very prestigious but earned her very only a small stipend.

When in 1911 she got an offer from Prague University, Kaiser Wilhelm decided finally to pay her salary.

During her lifetime she formed friendships with important scientists like Einstein, Niels Bohr, James Franck.

In 1926 she became the first woman physics professor in Germany. During the 1920's and 1930's she was nominated for Nobel prize several times. During this time she also ruled the institute with a firm hand.

She managed to keep the lab free of radioactive contamination just by taking simple measures, like using sheets of paper to wipe the hands with before touching anything, especially doorknobs.

By 1937 Meitner and Hahn identified at least 9 different radioactive elements and published several papers. During this time Fritz Strassman joined them as analytical chemist. During this time in many parts of the world people were working on nuclear fission, and Meitner too was puzzled by its mystery.

When Hitler took over Austria in 1938 she became a German Jew citizen. This started the dark period of her life. At the age of 59 years she fled from Germany to Denmark and then to Sweden. Going to Sweden was a mistake as in Sweden she was an exile. She was denied of Nobel Prize due to this.

During her stay in Sweden she continued to correspond with Hahn. The product of it was "nuclear fission". She and Frisch worked very hard to solve this mystery. When Frisch Bohr learned about this, Bohr was so excited that he shared this secret with another scientist and the news was all over US. Bohr tried to help Meitner and Frisch to get the credit but their report was published later than Hahn's report.

The importance of nuclear fission was known after the war but the Nobel Prize was given before the war to Hahn for disproving Enrico Fermi. Thus Meitner lost recognition for her work.

Though it was Meitner who actually solved the mystery and Hahn just carried out the experiment to prove it, Hahn got all the credit and even Nobel Prize for it. He never tried to give Meitner credit for her contribution. However, Meitner never complained about not getting the Nobel Prize.

In 1966 United States Atomic Energy awarded the Enrico Fermi award to the entire team of Meitner, Hahn and Strassman. Meitner was the first woman to get this award.

On 27th Oct. 1968 she passed away peacefully.

Denied the Nobel Prize and due recognition during her lifetime, Lise Meitner is now considered one of the most significant woman scientists of the century.

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