| Raised in Vienna
at a time when girls were only educated until age 14, Lise Meitner
dreamed of studying mathematics and physics. Despite the
opposition of her father, Meitner enrolled at Vienna University in
1901. After she received her doctorate, she began experimenting
with radioactivity. She moved to Berlin to work with famed Max
Planck, who had won a Nobel Prize for his quantum theory. It was
there that she began her long association with Otto Hahn, a chemist, who
needed the help of a physicist to look for new elements.
Unfortunately women were prohibited from entering the building where
Hahn's laboratory was located. After a compromise was achieved,
Meitner was allowed to work in a basement room without pay.
After World War I, Meitner
and Hahn discovered Protactinium, a rare radioactive element with atomic
number 91. The now highly regarded Meitner was asked to become
director of the new physics department at the Chemistry Institute in
Berlin, where she remained until she was forced to flee the Nazi
persecution of the Jews in 1938.
Despite being exiled to
Sweden, Meitner maintained contact with her old lab in Germany.
Hahn sent daily letters asking for opinions or explanations of the
experiments they were running. Scientists at the time were
bombarding uranium with neutrons in the mistaken belief that they could
create elements heavier than uranium. Strangely, the results they
were getting seemed to point to lighter elements. It was Meitner
who ultimately hit on the solution - that the uranium nucleus had
actually split, forming two smaller elements. Sadly for Meitner,
before she could publish her results, her former partner Hahn had
notified a German scientific journal about the discovery and his article
was published first. As a result, Hahn would go on to win the 1944
Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. He never
acknowledged Meitner's contribution to the work.
The scientific community,
however, never forgot her importance to physics. In 1992, element
109, the heaviest known element in the universe was named Meitnerium in
her honor. Lise Meitner is considered by many as the "most
significant woman scientist of the 20th century".