The Latymer School History Magazine - page 18

results, but not an
explanation, of their findings
, a
German scientific journal.
Meitner, surprisingly, was not
listed as a co-author. It was
Meitner who would
understand and explain the
phenomenon. Meitner and
nephew Frisch were able to
explain how the
bombardment of uranium
with neutrons effectively
‘split’ the nucleus and coined
the term ‘fission’. Meitner was
the first to use Einstein’s
E=mc² to explain how the
lost mass had been
converted into large
quantities of energy. Most
importantly, Meitner realised
the capacity for a chain
reaction: the discovery that
would shape the second half
of the 20
international relations.
The relationship between
Hahn and Meitner had
always been balanced with
Hahn working on the
chemistry and Meitner on the
physics. However, the
chemical tests were as much
a part of Meitner’s work as
Hahn’s. This is seen time and
time again by Hahn meeting
with Meitner in Copenhagen
and corresponding when he
could find no explanation for
his findings. However, the
invaluable work she did on
the research and
understanding of the project
went unrecognised even by
the Nobel committee. In
1944, 5 years after the
chemical findings and
physical explanations of
Meitner and Hahn had been
published, the Nobel Prize
for chemistry was awarded to
Otto Hahn. The Nobel
Committee had failed to
understand the part she had
played in the work, even
attributing the theory of
fission to Hahn. Otto Hahn
made no effort to amend this
wrong, having published the
paper without Meitner’s
name while he sought her
insight and later even
denying that her
contributions had been
The omission of Meitner is
now regarded as one of the
greatest Nobel Prize
mistakes, as it is indubitable
that the theoretical
foundations of fission were
as important, if not more so,
than the chemical
experiments themselves.
However, Meitner has not
gone completely
unrecognised; the most
prestigious recognition was
in the form of the Enrico
Fermi Award in 1966,
honouring scientists for
lifetime achievements in the
field of energy, which went
some way to rectifying earlier
mistakes. She shared this
prize with Hahn. Ironically,
the namesake of the prize,
although having made many
valuable discoveries himself,
had been amongst the
collection of scientists in
Europe with whom the Hahn-
Meitner collaboration had
been ‘racing’ to create a
heavier element than
uranium. In essence, Meitner
had been given an award
named after a male scientist
that her team had effectively
‘beaten’ to the discovery- a
real rectification of the
mistakes made?
This was not all Meitner
achieved: she was the first
ever full female professor of
physics in German history
and element 109 was named
‘Meitnerium’ – a name
accepted without argument
in 1997 and the only element
named after a real woman.
Earlier in her career Meitner
had been awarded the
Leibniz Medal for her
discovery of a long-lived
isotope of protactinium.
Again somewhat ironically,
she was also awarded the
‘Otto Hahn’ prize in 1955, the
prize named after her
colleague and given to
incredible physicists and
chemists alternately.
Now, Lise Meitner is
probably best known by the
nicknames she picked up
after the Second World War,
following the discovery of
The first of these is ‘mother
of the atomic bomb’- valid in
that, obviously, she played a
major role in the discovery of
fission: realising that the
process had the potential to
set off a chain reaction to
generate large quantities of
energy. However, it is
perhaps unfair and an
injustice to Meitner to say
that she inadvertently
brought about the bomb
itself. Meitner’s
understanding had, indeed,
inspired an elite number of
scientists to carry out further
tests on uranium and the
Manhattan project (an
American project working on
developing an atomic bomb)
did lay its foundations in
these tests. However, when
asked if she would
participate in the project of
developing an atomic bomb,
Meitner famously replied, ‘I
will have nothing to do with a
bomb’. Meitner was
unappreciative of being
associated with the atomic
bomb, and neither Hahn nor
Frisch (who did actually work
on the Manhattan Project)
has ever been referred to as
the ‘father’ of the bomb. To
call her the ‘mother’ of the
bomb is not only an insult
but also ignorant as it fails to
recognise the part that
fission has played in other
areas of science.
So Meitner was first ignored
completely, and then, when
her efforts were recognised,
referred to primarily in light
of the atomic bomb. Such is
the legacy of one of the
greatest female scientists of
the 20
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