Lise Meitner: Biography, Discovery & Accomplishments

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy has a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from the University of Memphis, M.S. from the University of Virginia, and B.S. from Mississippi State University. She has over 10 years of experience developing STEM curriculum and teaching physics, engineering, and biology.

Lise Meitner was a German physicist who was instrumental in the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s. Without her, we wouldn't have nuclear power or atomic weapons today! In this lesson, learn about her life and the many contributions she made to science.

Nuclear Fission

In 1938, two German scientists named Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered something that would change the world. They found that atoms of uranium could be split into two new atoms, releasing a tremendous amount of energy in the process. This process would come to be called called nuclear fission. Less than ten years after their discovery, the energy released by nuclear fission would be harnessed to produce the world's very first nuclear weapon. Today, the homes of millions of people are powered by nuclear fission every day.

Nuclear Fission occurs when one atom splits into two, releasing a lot of energy. This energy can be harnessed to produce atomic weapons and nuclear power.
nuclear fission of uranium

Hahn and Strassmann would eventually win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work. There is a lot more to this story, however. There was another person who played a critical role in the discovery of nuclear fission. Her name was Lise Meitner, and her work on this project was at least as critical as that of Hahn and Strassmann, although her contributions were overlooked for many years.

Early Life

Lise Meitner was born in 1878 in Vienna, Austria, and displayed an aptitude for scientific research early in her life. From the time she was eight years old, she kept a notebook where she recorded her experiments and observations about the world. Although it was not common for Austrian women to pursue any higher education at the time, Meitner was determined to be a scientist. She studied physics privately for a while, but was finally allowed to enroll in the University of Vienna in 1901. She graduated with a Ph.D. in physics a few years later in 1906.

Lise Meitner at age 28, not long after completing her Ph.D. in Physics in 1906
photo of Lise Meitner

Work at Berlin

There were no opportunities for women to be involved in physics research in Austria, and Meitner was not interested in being a teacher, so she moved to Berlin in hopes of finding work as a real physicist. In Berlin, she began working with a chemist named Otto Hahn, and when the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) was established, she began working there, continuing her collaboration with Hahn. After World War I, she was promoted to head of a nuclear physics section at KWI, while Hahn was leading a chemistry section. They worked together for many years, and made several significant contributions to science, including discovering a number of new isotopes.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory

Discovery of Nuclear Fission

In 1934, Enrico Fermi bombarded atoms of uranium with beams of neutrons. He said that by doing this he was able to produce elements that were heavier than uranium. However, not everyone agreed with his conclusions. What was really happening when uranium was bombarded with neutrons? Meitner wanted to find out, and she convinced Hahn to work with her to identify exactly what was actually being produced.

Their work together would be cut short, however, when Meitner was forced to flee the country in 1938. Although she had converted to Christianity as a young woman, her family was Jewish, and she was no longer able to live and work freely in Germany. She fled first to the Netherlands and then to Stockholm, Sweden. In Stockholm, she was able to join a research group, but she was not paid any salary or given access to equipment or any assistants. Determined to make the best of a difficult situation, she continued to correspond regularly with her old friend and collaborator Otto Hahn.

In December of 1938, Hahn finally found what he and Meitner had been looking for when he discovered the presence of barium after uranium had been bombarded with neutrons. This was surprising, and he didn't know what to make of it. He immediately wrote to his old friend Meitner and asked for her help in explaining what had happened.

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