Happy International Women’s Day! Here’s one of my favorite women in history…. Lise Meitner (7 November 1878 – 27 October 1968), an Austrian physicist who worked alongside Nobel laureate and chemist Otto Hahn for decades studying radioactivity. Meitner earned a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna in 1905 and, after moving to Berlin, she became an assistant to Max Planck. After World War I (during which she worked as a nurse), Meitner became Germany’s first professor of physics, assuming a post at the University of Berlin in 1926.

After losing her Austrian citizenship in 1938 following the Anschluss (Meitner was Jewish by birth, though a baptized Lutheran), Meitner fled to Sweden but continued her work with Hahn who, as the chemist, performed research and experiments and discovered in 1938 a process that Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch  explained and dubbed “nuclear fission”, a term borrowed from biology. In 1944 Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission; Meitner was not acknowledged by the academy despite her contributions to the theoretical portion of the discovery (Hahn once wrote to her asking her to “come up with some sort of fantastic explanation” for his observed results - that explanation being nuclear fission), although she was eventually awarded, along with Hahn and Fritz Strassman, the Enrico Fermi Award. In addition, she and Hahn received the Max Planck Medal in 1949, and in 1997 she alone became the namesake of a new element -  ”meitnerium” (Mt). 

When she was invited to work on the Manhattan Project in 1943, she replied “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”, and in her later life she reportedly had mixed feelings about her role in the development of the bomb, as a co-discoverer of nuclear fission. The inscription on her headstone, chosen by Frisch, read: “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

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    Women in science are amazing.
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