Lise Meitner

MEITNER, Lise, Austrian/Swedish physicist, 1878-1968. During WW1 she was a radiographer and nurse with the Austrian Army. In 1918 Lise discovered the element protactinium, and had early evidence of the existence of the element neptunium. In 1938 Hahn had achieved fission of uranium, but Lise was the only one of the group who realised what the results meant. She had already moved to Sweden prior to hearing the experimental results. In 1939 Meitner and Frisch (her nephew) published two papers in Nature, in which they correctly explained the results obtained by Hahn and Strassmann. Meitner was the first to conceive the invention of the atomic bomb, she would never work on atomic weapons but she studied radioactive decay of isotopes. Lise was the first to see the implications of atomic weapons from splitting of the atom, and she feared that Hitler might make an atom bomb first. So when Niels Bohr went to the USA in 1939 he carried her warnings to the US government. Curiously, the first scientist to suggest nuclear fission was feasible was another woman, Noddack, who in 1934 had seen this possibility from Fermi’s work. Meitner was a joint winner of the Fermi Award in 1966. It was remarkable that one woman saw the prospects for splitting the atom, and another one realised that it had been done and then also first visualised the atomic bomb as a weapon of mass destruction.

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