LISE MEITNER: A REFUGEE SCIENTIST

Bom in Vienna, Austria, on November 17, 1878, Elise Meitner was the third of eight children in a prosperous Jewish family living in the Leopoldstadt suburb of Vienna. Slight of figure, shy, and a formidable scientist, she was the second woman to earn a Ph. D. in physics at the University of Vienna. For reasons unknown, Elise shortened her first name to Lise and her birthday to November 7. Her teaming with Otto Hahn in 1907 would result in one of the most fortunate collaborations in the history of nuclear science, but its culmination in the discovery of fission would occur with her in exile and unable to share the credit.

in 1932, with Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron, an unofficial scientific race began. Dr. Meitner rejoined the person who had invented applied radiochemistry, Dr. Hahn, for an investigation of the effects of neutrons on uranium. Also in the competi­tion were Ernest Rutherford in Britain, Irene Joliot-Curie in France, and Enrico Fermi (1901-54) in Italy.

The next year, Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany, and life immediately became very difficult for German Jews. It became illegal for them to work in German technical institutes or universities, and most, including Leo Szilard, were forced to leave the country. Lise Meitner got by on a technicality. She was Austrian, not Ger­man, and she kept working at the institute for Chemistry in Berlin as if she were immune to the Nazi mind-set. She and Otto Hahn were approaching an important

December 22, Hahn submitted his paper cautiously titled, “Concerning the existence of alkaline earth metals resulting from the neutron irra­diation of uranium,” and the discovery of nuclear fission was announced. Two months later Hahn wrote a second paper predicting the liberation of at least two neutrons during the fission process. With the discovery of fis­sion in uranium, Szilard’s nuclear power reactor was not only possible, it was almost inevitable.

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