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.