Meitnerium

I hesitated for a moment over whether to use a Star of David to represent meitnerium as Lise Meitner did not count herself Jewish by religion and as a young woman was baptised in to the Protestant church, but nevertheless she was ethnically Jewish and this had an enormous impact on her later life.

Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 and took advantage of the gradual opening up of education to women to pursue her interest in physics. Having gained her doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1905 (only the second woman to do so), she moved to Berlin to study under Max Planck and soon began working with radiochemist Otto Hahn. During her time in Berlin, Meitner became the first female professor at the University of Berlin and co-discovered and named the element protactinium, but it was her role in the discovery of nuclear fission that is seen as her most significant achievement.

In 1938 she and Hahn, along with chemist Fritz Strassman, were investigating the decay products of the bombardment of uranium with neutrons. Meitner stayed in Berlin as long as she dared, but with Hitler’s annexation of Austria, she found herself at increased risk and without a valid passport. The scientific community rallied to her cause, with Niels Bohr, Dirk Coster, Adriaan Fokker, Peter Debye and Otto Hahn, among others, playing a part in her escape via the Netherlands and Denmark to sanctuary in Sweden and a position in Stockholm with Manne Siegbahn.

Back in Berlin, Hahn and Strassman continued their chemical analysis, and that December, Hahn wrote to Meitner that he had found evidence of barium atoms in the bombarded uranium samples. This meant that rather than creating new heavier elements, the uranium atoms were splitting, a phenomenon thought to be impossible. Meitner’s nephew Otto Frisch, also a physicist who had earlier been dismissed from his position in Germany, was visiting from Copenhagen for Christmas, and the two puzzled over this possibility, coming up with the theoretical explanation to explain Hahn’s results and convince the world that fission was indeed possible.

The implications of the discovery of nuclear fission shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War are well known. Meitner wanted no part in the development of an atomic bomb, and neither did Hahn contribute to Germany’s bomb project. While Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on fission, Meitner was not recognised for her role, and never received a Nobel despite being nominated 19 times for chemistry and 29 times for physics. Lasting acknowledgement of her achievements came after her death with the naming of element 109 as meitnerium in 1997, the only element named solely after a (non-mythological) woman, curium being named for both Marie and Pierre Curie.

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