Lise Meitner, the ‘Atomic Pioneer’ Who By no means Received a Nobel Prize

There’s a memorable scene in “Oppenheimer,” the blockbuster movie concerning the constructing of the atomic bomb, during which Luis Alvarez, a physicist on the College of California, Berkeley, is studying a newspaper whereas getting a haircut. Abruptly, Alvarez leaps from his seat and sprints down the highway to seek out his colleague, the theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Oppie! Oppie!” he shouts. “They’ve completed it. Hahn and Strassmann in Germany. They cut up the uranium nucleus. They cut up the atom.”

The reference is to 2 German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, who in 1939 unknowingly reported an illustration of nuclear fission, the splintering of an atom into lighter parts. The invention was key to the Manhattan Undertaking, the top-secret American effort led by Oppenheimer to develop the primary nuclear weapons.

Besides the scene just isn’t fully correct, to the chagrin of some scientists. A significant participant is lacking from the portrayal: Lise Meitner, a physicist who labored carefully with Hahn and developed the idea of nuclear fission.

Meitner was an enormous in her personal proper, a up to date of Nobel laureates like Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and Max Planck. After the second atomic system was dropped on Nagasaki, the American press dubbed her the “mom of the atomic bomb,” an affiliation she vehemently rejected.

Solely Hahn gained the Nobel Prize for nuclear fission. In his acceptance speech, he referred to Meitner with a German time period which means assistant or worker, in keeping with Marissa Moss, the creator of a current e book about Meitner. “Or a co-worker at greatest,” she mentioned.

In 2022, Ms. Moss sifted by means of Meitner’s archive on the College of Cambridge. Since then, she has translated tons of of letters between Meitner and Hahn, written in German, which she says provide a extra nuanced perspective of their relationship’s demise. That perception additionally challenges a typical notion that Meitner accepted the end result of the Nobel Prize with out resentment.

The snub was about extra than simply gender, in keeping with Ms. Moss. “It’s simple to say she didn’t get it as a result of she was a girl,” Ms. Moss mentioned. “One doesn’t suppose a girl goes to make noise about issues.” Ms. Moss additionally believes Meitner’s heritage was at play: “It is a case the place it was as a result of she was a Jew.”

In 1947, Meitner wrote to her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, a Jewish physicist who additionally contributed to the invention of nuclear fission: “I do know that his angle contributed to the Nobel committee deciding in opposition to us,” she mentioned of Hahn, in a letter translated by Ms. Moss. “However that’s purely non-public stuff that we don’t wish to make public.”

Nobel Week is a second when the scientific neighborhood celebrates its best achievements but in addition, more and more, examines oversights and injustices. Lise Meitner is one among many ladies in science who did not obtain due credit score for his or her work, together with, maybe most notably, Rosalind Franklin, the chemist who contributed to the invention of the double helix construction of DNA in 1953.

“There are tons of, if not 1000’s, of ladies who obtain one thing nice in science that simply didn’t get acknowledged of their lifetime,” mentioned Katie Hafner, the host of the podcast “Misplaced Ladies of Science.” Ms. Hafner just lately accomplished a two-part episode about Meitner, the second half of which opens with the fateful Oppenheimer scene. In contrast to different figures on her podcast, Ms. Hafner mentioned, “Lise Meitner just isn’t misplaced.”

However, she added, “she is misunderstood.”

From the start, Meitner was breaking glass ceilings. Born in 1878 in Vienna, she started finding out physics privately, as girls in Austria weren’t allowed to attend school till 1897. In 1901, she enrolled in graduate college on the College of Vienna; 5 years later she earned a doctorate in physics, solely the second girl from her college to take action.

Meitner spent the remainder of her profession working among the many greats. She moved to the College of Berlin and commenced auditing lessons taught by Max Planck, who gained the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics — and who typically didn’t permit girls to attend his lectures.

In Berlin, Meitner additionally met Otto Hahn, a chemist who was round her age and had a extra progressive angle about working with girls. Hahn was additionally desirous to collaborate with Meitner, as physicists tended to have a greater grasp on radioactivity, the vitality emitted by unstable atomic nuclei, than chemists. However, as a girl, Meitner was not allowed upstairs in Hahn’s lab. So she labored — with out pay — within the basement. (When she wanted to make use of the restroom, Ms. Moss mentioned, Meitner needed to sprint throughout the road.)

In 1912, Meitner and Hahn moved to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Collectively, they found a brand new factor named protactinium. When the boys on the Institute have been drafted throughout World Struggle I, Meitner was given her personal physics lab and the title of professor, a place that granted her recognition and the independence to pursue her personal analysis.

However exterior the realm of science, the partitions have been closing in. Antisemitism was on the rise, and in 1933 Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Many Jewish scientists left the nation, however Meitner stayed, thinly protected by her Austrian citizenship and eager to hold on to the uncommon alternative for a girl to conduct scientific analysis.

“I like physics with all my coronary heart,” she wrote in a letter to a buddy. “I can hardly think about it not being a part of my life.”

In 1938, Germany invaded Austria, leaving Meitner topic to the complete extent of the Nazi regime. She opted to flee. The Nobel physics laureate Niels Bohr organized for her to flee by practice.

Meitner ultimately made her option to Sweden, devastated at having needed to depart behind her life’s work and anxious concerning the security of her household.

She continued collaborating with Hahn by mail. He ran experiments, and he or she interpreted findings he didn’t perceive. One outcome stumped them each: When uranium atoms have been bombarded with neutrons, the neutron ought to have been absorbed and an electron launched, making a heavier factor. As an alternative, Hahn discovered barium, a a lot lighter factor. They have been baffled.

The discovering was exterior of Hahn’s experience as a chemist. “Maybe you possibly can provide you with some type of implausible clarification,” he wrote in a letter to Meitner translated by Ruth Lewin Sime, a chemist at Sacramento Metropolis School who revealed a biography of Meitner in 1996. “If there’s something you would suggest that you would publish, then it might nonetheless in a approach be work by the three of us!”

Hahn and his colleague Fritz Strassmann submitted the outcomes for publication in December of 1938. Their tone was unsure. “There might maybe be a collection of bizarre coincidences which has given us false indications,” they wrote in German.

Meitner was not included as an creator, nor was there any point out of her contribution to the work.

In Sweden, Meitner mulled over the outcomes with Frisch, her physicist-nephew. One snowy day, Frisch recalled in a memoir, they took a stroll, ultimately stopping to take a seat on a tree trunk and scribble calculations on scraps of paper.

Uranium was extraordinarily unstable, they realized, and prone to fracture on affect with, say, a neutron. These fragments can be violently blasted aside. If a kind of items have been barium, Meitner mused, the opposite must be one other mild factor referred to as krypton. She computed the vitality driving the blast utilizing Einstein’s well-known equation, E = mc².

Hahn and Strassmann had cut up the atom.

“We’ve learn and thought of your paper very rigorously,” Meitner wrote to Hahn in January 1939. “Maybe it’s energetically potential for such a heavy nucleus to interrupt up.” In a later letter, she expressed disappointment at being absent: “Despite the fact that I stand right here with very empty fingers, I’m nonetheless pleased for these fantastic findings.”

Meitner and Frisch revealed their theoretical interpretation of Hahn and Strassmann’s leads to the February 1939 version of the journal Nature. Frisch and Meitner devised experiments to check their speculation. Within the following weeks, they revealed two extra papers with the outcomes, which turned the primary bodily affirmation of what Frisch coined “nuclear fission.”

Behind the scenes, Meitner and Hahn’s correspondence spiraled into misunderstanding. Hahn thought that she was indignant that he had revealed with out her. “What else might I’ve completed?” he wrote to Meitner. “Consider me, it might have been preferable for me if we might nonetheless work collectively and talk about issues as we did earlier than!”

Hahn was additionally receiving pushback for working with a Jewish scientist. “I don’t give this stuff a lot weight, in fact, however didn’t wish to confess to the gents that you simply have been the one one who discovered every little thing instantly,” he wrote Meitner in 1939.

Later that 12 months, Germany invaded Poland. World Struggle II had begun. And the race was on to construct an atomic bomb.

Phrase unfold about nuclear fission. Although a single cut up atom didn’t generate sufficient vitality for potential use in a weapon, some speculated {that a} chain response might do the trick. Bombarding uranium with neutrons not solely produced lighter parts; it additionally created extra neutrons. If these neutrons collided with extra uranium, the response would possibly maintain itself.

The American authorities assembled the Manhattan Undertaking to develop such a weapon. Lots of Meitner’s friends, together with Frisch and Bohr, turned concerned. Einstein didn’t, though he had written a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to safe uranium and fund chain response experiments.

Meitner, although she had been invited, refused to affix. (“I’ll don’t have anything to do with a bomb!” she famously mentioned.) In 1945, after atomic bombs have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, resulting in the top of the struggle, some newspaper tales claimed that Meitner had smuggled the recipe for the weapon out of Nazi Germany in her purse. She dismissed them. “You understand a lot extra in America concerning the atomic bomb than I,” she advised The New York Occasions in 1946.

In 1945, Hahn was nominated for the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, one 12 months late, for the invention of nuclear fission. Meitner and Frisch have been additionally nominated for the physics prize that 12 months. However solely Hahn gained.

Particulars of Nobel Prize deliberations stay secret for 50 years after an award is given. After the paperwork surrounding Hahn’s win have been launched, science historians revealed an evaluation of the deliberations in Physics At the moment in 1997. “None of this embittered Meitner,” they wrote. “She complained little or no, and forgave an incredible deal.”

Ms. Hafner takes problem with that stance. “Who’s going to say, ‘Hey, I’m bitter’?” she mentioned. “What are the optics of that?”

Ms. Moss thinks bitter is the incorrect phrase. “She was very, very harm,” she mentioned of Meitner, at each the shortage of credit score and the passive loyalty she felt Hahn needed to Germany.

“It was fairly clear to me that Hahn was utterly unaware of his unfriendly conduct,” Meitner wrote to a buddy in 1946. “Naturally, the time along with him was considerably painful, however I used to be ready for it and held myself agency, mentioning no private debates.”

Meitner was nominated once more — 5 instances — for the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physics. In line with the authors of the Physics At the moment article, the Nobel committee argued that it was “agency custom” to award the prize for experimental, reasonably than theoretical, discoveries.

However Demetrios Matsakis, a retired physicist of the U.S. Naval Observatory, mentioned it’s unimaginable to separate the “interaction between experimentalists and theorists. They want one another.” (Dr. Matsakis realized of Meitner in 2018, and was impressed to petition to rename one other radioactive course of, to acknowledge Meitner’s position in that discovery.)

Hahn deserved the award, however Meitner did, too, Dr. Matsakis mentioned: “She ought to have gotten the Nobel Prize. There’s actually no query about that.”

As an inverse comparability, scientists notice the case of Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese language American physicist who ran experiments exhibiting that some particle interactions don’t obey mirror symmetry. In 1957, two of Wu’s male colleagues gained the Nobel Prize in Physics for constructing the idea confirmed by her outcomes.

The award recipient — the experimentalist or the theorist — “looks like it was reversed in these two instances,” mentioned Harry Saal, a physicist who studied underneath Wu at Columbia College. “And in each instances the girl obtained screwed.”

In his later years, Hahn appeared to attempt to make amends. He and Meitner remained associates, and he supplied her a head place on the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which she declined. In 1948, he nominated her for the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Meitner went on to be nominated 46 instances for the Nobel in each physics and chemistry, however she by no means gained. (To this point, solely 4 girls have gained in physics, most just lately in 2020, and solely eight have gained in chemistry.)

In 1968, Meitner, then 89, died in England. An obituary that ran in The Occasions referred to her as an “atomic pioneer” and the “scientific accomplice of Otto Hahn, the Nobel Prize-winning nuclear chemist and the discoverer of nuclear fission.”

In 2020, the official Nobel Prize account on X, previously generally known as Twitter, acknowledged that each Hahn and Meitner found nuclear fission. The submit was accompanied by paintings exhibiting Meitner standing behind Hahn, to the outrage of many individuals.

Any effort to award a Nobel to Meitner posthumously can be in useless. “As soon as a Nobel is given, there isn’t any going again,” Dr. Sime mentioned. The most effective that may be completed is to acknowledge Meitner within the current, she added — and her omission from the brand new Oppenheimer movie “was not excusable.”

Ms. Moss continues to be translating Meitner’s letters; to date, she has labored by means of greater than 700 pages. “Now I’m simply doing it as a result of I fell in love together with her,” she mentioned. “She’s an unbelievable particular person.” She plans to write down one other e book about Meitner with all the fabric that didn’t make it into the primary one.

Earlier this 12 months, Ms. Hafner and a buddy visited Meitner’s grave, situated in a tiny English churchyard “in the midst of nowhere,” she mentioned. It took them half an hour to seek out the pale tombstone, which was overgrown with weeds.

Ms. Hafner was stunned at how unremarkable the grave was for such “an enormous in science,” she mentioned. Nonetheless, she was comforted to discover a stone perched atop the marker, a Jewish observe to honor the lifeless. Ms. Hafner added visitation stones for herself, Ms. Moss, Bohr, Einstein, Frisch and even Hahn.

That is how persons are remembered, Ms. Hafner mentioned. “Till we chip away at this and proceed to remind individuals of the necessary work she did, it simply gained’t get acknowledged,” she added. So “we do every little thing we will to set the file straight.”


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