The Origin of Nuclear Fission

Elise Meitner was born in Austria into an upper-middle-class Jewish family. Her father was a lawyer and free thinker who encouraged curiosity in his eight children. Lise (the name she preferred) was attracted to math and science but was limited in her ability to study these topics because they were not considered appropriate areas of study for women.

Lise took private lessons in physics and was able to pursue her education once laws were overturned that limited women’s access to higher education. She became one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in Physics.

Following her Ph.D., Lise began to do research at institutions where women were considered inferior. She received no compensation and couldn’t enter through the main door or use their bathrooms. In spite of the prejudice, Lise proved herself. Over time her talent became recognized and her stature improved.

When Adolf Hitler came to power, Lise realized that she would need to leave Germany. She accepted an offer to join Niels Bohr in Sweden. After considerable difficulty, she escaped from Germany and was eventually allowed into Sweden.

Working in Sweden, Lise and two colleagues discovered what we now know as nuclear fission. Their work became the basis for the first atomic bomb and nuclear reactors. Her work on fission was the key to the discovery of the fission process. She provided the detail for her collaborators. But it was one of her collaborators who won the Nobel Prize. When the proceedings of the Nobel Committee were made public five decades later, it was concluded that bias and ignorance were largely responsible for Lise not being awarded the Nobel Prize. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics 29 times and in Chemistry 19 times. Her nominators were the leading scientists of the time.

Hidden heroes often face bias in the acceptance of their work. For Lise, that bias was based on her gender, her religious heritage, and personal animus. They might confront this bias with resentment. Or they can confront the bias with extraordinary achievements which cannot be ignored. True heroes do not ever fall into a victim trap imposed upon them.

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            “I will have nothing to do with a bomb.” – Lise Meitner (upon being invited to work on the Manhattan Project)

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