Lise Meitner Helped Discover Nuclear Fission—and Was Then Forgotten via Daily Beast

Lise Meitner’s co-discovery of nuclear fission in the 1940s led to nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. But the scientific establishment ignored her ground-breaking work.

Janice Kaplan

When Lise Meitner was invited to Los Alamos in the early 1940s to work on the Manhattan Project, the code name for the secret program to develop the first nuclear weapons, she declined, saying, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

But her reluctance came too late. A few years earlier, she had turn physics on its head by discovering nuclear fission. She explained why and how you could split the atomic nucleus of uranium and create a huge explosion of energy. 

The discovery led to the nuclear reactors that generate heat and electricity. And despite Meitner’s antipathy to bomb-making, she paved the way for nuclear weapons. In other words, it was a groundbreaking big deal. 


Meitner collaborated for several decades with a chemist named Otto Hahn, working with him on radioactivity and then fission. They were often talked about for a Nobel Prize and, sure enough, in 1944, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences came through with an award for the “discovery of the fission of heavy atomic nuclei.” But then they announced that the winner was—Otto Hahn. 

Not Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner together. Only one half of the team—the male half—got the honor and the recognition and the prize money. 
In the early 1990s, some physicists reviewed the proceedings of the Nobel Committee which had just become public and concluded that excluding Meitner was inexcusable. They described it as a mixture of “bias, political obtuseness, ignorance, and haste.” And that was putting it nicely. 


For Meitner, the bias must have seemed too familiar. Born in Vienna in 1878, she was educated privately until girls were allowed in public universities—and then she got a PhD in physics. With no job prospects for a woman in Vienna, she moved to Berlin. The situation there was a little better, and she became the first woman in Germany to be a full professor of physics.


Elements used to be named after mythological creatures or the place they were discovered, but more recent discoveries recognize great scientists like Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. One is named for Copernicus, who upended our view of the universe by realizing that the earth revolves around the sun. And element 109 on the periodic table is named… Meitnerium. 

Read more at Lise Meitner Helped Discover Nuclear Fission—and Was Then Forgotten

This entry was posted in *English and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply