It is natural for us to remember heroes and villains, the Captains and the Kings who strode across our stage and mesmerised us with their oratory and occasional genius. But sometimes, behind them and in the shadows, you will find people whose lives provide a gentle inspiration to us all. In many subtle ways their influence can last longer and be more profound.
Such a person, I believe, was Lise Meitner. Looking at her life as a whole you have someone who, as a woman in the early 20th century, had to fight for recognition in her chosen field of particle physics. She then had to cope with:
- Being a Jew in Nazi Germany and eventually fleeing the country in secret.
- Making a significant contribution to nuclear physics including being the first person to truly understand the destructive potential of atomic energy.
- Turning down the opportunity to work on the Manhattan Project.
- Being overlooked for a Nobel Prize.
But posthumously her character and contributions were recognised when an element, Meitnerium, was named after her. Let us now look at her life in more detail.
She was born in 1878 to a wealthy family in Vienna. These would have been heady days for the well to do and there was a feeling of the boundaries of scientific knowledge being pushed by local people like Sigmund Freud.
From an early age she had a passion for mathematics, and the later years of her education were spent being educated at home to avoid the restrictions on women. One of her early teachers was the renowned physicist Ludwig Boltzmann. It is believed that he helped her to see the study of physics as a search for the ultimate truth.
Her work took a substantial step forward when Max Planck agreed that she could become his assistant. Subsequently she moved to Berlin to work with Otto Hahn.
The race to find elements heavier than Uranium had started and they made a good team at the front of research. However these were also the years when Hitler was cementing his power base and we can only imagine her concerns growing as she was propelled forward in the rush for scientific advancement.
Finally in July 1938 she was smuggled across the border to an eventual life in Stockholm where she met,amongst others, Neils Bohr. She was the first person to realise the implications of Einstein’s famous equation e=mc2. At this point scientists around the world began to realise the destructive potential of nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project began. Lise Meitner was invited to join but fearing the destructive consequences of the research she declined.
After the war she was critical of the German scientists who had not stood against Hitler and all that the Nazis represented. Referring to the leading German Scientist, Werner Heisenberg she was reputed to have said, “Heisenberg and many millions with him should be forced to see these camps and the martyred people.” However this was the time of the cold war, German scientists were being naturalised as Americans and her stance would not have been popular.
Although she was overlooked when the Nobel Prize awarded to Otto Hahn she did, belatedly, receive some recognition in having an element, Meitnerium, named after her in 1982.
Meitner died in 1968. She is buried in a small cemetery in Bramley, Hampshire (UK). Her tombstone sums up her extraordinary life quite succinctly:
“Lise Meitner, a physicist who never lost her humanity”