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A very human physicist

On the great life of Lise Meitner

Philip and Elizabeth Strange 6 April 2010

Overshadowed: Meitner didn't get due credit

She had immense moral scruples and a passion for truth that prevented her from participating in some high profile activities of which she disapproved

My eleven-year-old daughter Elizabeth is very keen to see more articles written about women scientists. Recently, she gave me a summary of Lise Meitner’s life based on one of her books in the hopes that I’d write about her. At the end of the 19th century, very few women went to university and academic career opportunities for women were almost non-existent. The story of Meitner, who entered the University of Vienna in 1901 and eventually became a leading nuclear physicist in the new science of nuclear fission, is therefore very striking. Her life reflects some of the key moral dilemmas of the 20th century.

In one of life’s great coincidences, a few days later Elizabeth and I were driving home together and turned on BBC Radio 4 at the precise moment Meitner was being featured on the programme ‘Great Lives’. In this long running biographical programme, the presenter Matthew Parris asks guests to nominate someone who has inspired their lives. Jenny Agutter, the actor, chose Meitner, having been impressed with the way she made her way at a time when women had few opportunities.

Jeff Hughes was on hand as the scientific expert, and he outlined how Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 to an intellectual Jewish family and educated privately to enable her to enter the University of Vienna in 1901. Here she was taught by Boltzmann who imparted to her “the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost”. In 1906 she became only the second woman in Vienna to receive a doctorate in physics. She moved to Berlin in 1907 where she attended lectures by Max Planck, eventually becoming his friend. She then began to work with the chemist Otto Hahn, resulting in their lifelong friendship and long collaboration examining the basis of radioactivity and nuclear physics. Together they were a strong team with Meitner providing expertise in physics and Hahn in chemistry. She rose to become a professor in 1919, a first for a woman in German science. Hahn and Meitner’s work continued well until Hitler came to power in 1933. Meitner stayed until her status as a Jew became too dangerous, and then fled to Sweden in 1938. She never fully resumed her scientific career but there was a key event still to come.

While in Sweden, she corresponded regularly with Hahn. Hahn had been doing experiments on the bombardment of uranium with neutrons and had eventually found that this led to production of the lighter element, barium, a finding he was unable to interpret. He wrote to Meitner asking for help and she and her nephew, Otto Frisch, proposed the idea of nuclear fission to rationalise Hahn’s findings. Meitner never received the credit for this idea and Hahn and others gradually wrote her out of the story. Hahn received a Nobel Prize for the work and Meitner was not even mentioned.

The untold story of discovery Meitner and Hahn in the lab

Although she was clearly the victim of a great injustice, Meitner apparently harboured no resentment. She quickly saw both the positive and negative aspects of the discovery and was repulsed by the idea of nuclear weapons. She was asked if she would take part in the Manhattan Project but refused. She was also asked if she would be involved in the making of the 1947 film about the Manhattan Project and the bombing of Hiroshima entitled The Beginning Or The End. Typically for her she rejected the invitation: “I would rather walk naked down Broadway than be involved in a film like that.”

Towards the end of her life she moved to England settling in Cambridge where her papers are kept in Churchill College. She died aged 90 and is buried in Bramley in Hampshire where her grave bears the inscription, “a physicist who never lost her humanity”.

This was a fascinating story, well told with great enthusiasm, and we should be grateful to Agutter for suggesting Meitner and promoting her case so passionately. Occasionally, however, Parris and Agutter sounded slightly out of their depth with the science. There has always been the question of what sort of relationship Meitner and Hahn had. It appears to have been one of close working colleagues, with Meitner referring to Hahn as her “colleague-brother” and best friend. But because of the rules of the time they couldn’t even have lunch together. Jenny Agutter suggested that despite this apparent physical distance, she couldn’t think of anything “more intimate than discussing really extraordinarily intricate ideas…. like radioactive decay”. This feels to me like a non-scientist glamorising our profession. In my experience, in-depth scientific discussion can throw people together but without mutual attraction it is unlikely to lead to intimacy.

So, why is Meitner not more well known, and why did she not get more credit for her work? There are several reasons. She was a woman in science at the beginning of the 20th century when it was most unusual for women to be accepted as scientists. She was Jewish and this lead to her having to leave Germany. This also cut her off from those left in Germany such as Hahn who gradually wrote her out of the events. This, probably, was partly Hahn protecting himself and partly post-war Germany trying to forget what had happened. She lived at the wrong time and her life was greatly affected by the two world wars. She had immense moral scruples and a passion for truth that prevented her from participating in some high profile activities of which she disapproved.

She gradually did receive other honours; for example she was elected a foreign Fellow of the Royal Society in 1955 and shared the US Fermi Prize in 1966. Also, element 109 was named Meitnerium in her honour in 1997.

So well done Jenny Agutter for suggesting Lise Meitner. But not so well done Matthew Parris – why have there been so few scientists on your programme? I am sure the LabLiterati could suggest many names of scientists who had Great Lives.