November 7, 1878 – Birthdate of Lise Meitner – The Mother of the Atomic Bomb

Albert Einstein, when called “the father of the bomb,” protested that the bomb had no father but it had a mother, Lisë Meitner.

On this day in history, November 7, 1878, Lisë Meitner was born in Vienna. She and Otto Hahn together discovered nuclear fission, but only Hahn won official recognition for the discovery with his award of the Nobel Prize.

Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner

Meitner was shy but brilliant, studying with both Ludwig Boltzmann and Max Planck. She obtained a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna, no small achievement at the time for a woman. When she started working with Otto Hahn on radioactive substances, she did the physics and he did the chemistry. They collaborated for thirty years, but in 1938 Meitner was forced to emigrate after Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria. (Meitner was one of the many Jews who discovered that the Nazis did not count Christian baptism as a mitigating factor in their genocide project.)

She moved to an institute in Stockholm and continued her work with her nephew, Otto Frisch. Just months later, Hahn met secretly with Meitner in Copenhagen, where she suggested further tests for him to perform. Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassmann conducted neutron bombardment of uranium and found some inexplicable results – that is, the uranium burst into fractions of lesser weight. (One of these fractions was barium, detected by methods devised by Wilhelm Traube, a Jewish chemist who was later destroyed in the Holocaust.) Hahn wrote to Meitner and within days, working with her nephew, she identified and explained nuclear fission.

Otto Hahn

Otto Hahn

Hahn published the chemical evidence for fission in January 1939 without listing Meitner as a co-author, an omission Meitner attributed to the poisoned atmosphere in Nazi Germany. Meitner and Frisch published the physics explanation, proving nuclear fission, in February, 1939. Hahn seemed to repudiate Meitner’s contributions after the war, claiming that fission was a discovery that relied on chemistry alone, and in any event, the discovery took place after Meitner left Berlin. Meitner was always charitable to Hahn, explaining his behavior as “simply suppressing the past.” Indeed, there was a lot of suppressing of the past after World War II, especially when it came to reactions to Hitler and Stalin.

But Mark Smith, writing in the “New York Review of Books” in February, 1994, opined:

Otto Hahn had no mathematical background and would have been an ordinary paint chemist except for the fact that Meitner was female and women were not permitted to work in university laboratories. The two teamed up with Hahn pretending to be the scientist and Meitner the helper to gain lab access. Throughout their careers it was Meitner who designed and oversaw the experiments intended to test her theories, and while Hahn was capable of carrying them out and reporting the results, only Meitner could interpret them correctly.”

There are several books that will enlighten you on the story of how, as Smith phrases it “a Jewish woman managed to enter a university, study physics, become one of the select few who understood Einstein’s theories, survive the Holocaust, and make the single discovery which ultimately gave the Allies a decisive victory in WWII.” They include: LISE MEITNER: A Life In Physics 
By Ruth Lewin Sime
 (University of California Press, 1996), and Lise Meitner: Atomic Pioneer by Deborah Crawford (Crown Publishers, 1969).

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