Dr. Lise Meitner has been called Germany’s own Marie Curie and the mother of the atomic bomb–a title that she absolutely hated. Born in Austria in 1878 she earned her doctorate in physics in 1906 and became an unpaid research scientist at the Berlin Institute for Chemistry. The next year she started a working partnership with radio-chemist Otto Hahn and the pair would work together for thirty years.
In 1926 she was the first woman in Germany to assume the post of a full professor in physics when she joined the faculty of the University of Berlin, where she began research that would lead to her most famous co-discovery–nuclear fission. Sparked by the announcement of the discovery of the neutron the idea of being able to create an element heavier than uranium was an abstract research endeavor taken up by many scientists.
Even though Meitner had converted to Christianity in 1908 she had been born into a Jewish family and was targeted by the Nazis when they annexed Austria in 1938 and she was forced to flee. Meeting with Hahn in Copenhagen, the pair designed a new round of experiments and exchanged letters in order to analyze their results. Together they determined that the nucleus of an atom could be spilt into smaller parts and this spilt would be accompanied by a large amount of energy. She realized that the source of the large amounts of energy in nuclear fission comes from the conversion of mass into kinetic energy as described by Einstein.
Meitner also recognized the possibility for a chain reaction with explosive potential and this idea spurred a group of scientists to write American President Roosevelt informing him that Germany already had this knowledge. This letter would ultimately lead to the creation of the Manhattan Project and while she was offered work on the project, Meitner flatly refused saying she would have nothing to do with a bomb. In fact she is quoted as having said that she was, “sorry that the bomb had to be invented” and regretted it was part of her legacy.
Written by Angela Goad