I’m cranky on behalf of Lise Meitner, a brilliant physicist.
Guest post by Deidre Tronson
Although she and her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, had done the theoretical physics calculations and first proposed that a uranium nucleus had split into smaller pieces (later named nuclear fission), she did not win the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for that discovery. The only recipient was her long-time colleague Otto Hahn, who had performed the chemistry experiments to prove that fission had actually occurred.
I would have been cranky. Very cranky.
In reality, the oversight (if that is what it was!) was due to personalities, politics, and perceived viewpoints that are more complex and convoluted than first impressions might imply. She understood all of this. Sometimes she seemed to accept this as fate, and at others she did seem upset. She was more cross that this work led to the development and use of the atomic bomb, and that she became associated with that project – which, in fact, she had refused to be part of.
In general, during her long life, she seems to have been regarded as gracious and conciliatory, and someone with great common sense. On her gravestone, her nephew put the phrase “A physicist who never lost her humanity”.
She smoked; she worked with radioactive substances all her working life, the early part in labs contaminated high levels of radiation as well as years’ worth of other nasties such as mercury; she lived through periods of food deprivation; she left Germany hurriedly as a refugee and all the upheaval that brings; she suffered a heart attack at 86 and still lived on to ninety. Many of these would be enough to make any normal person very bitter and twisted, but Lise Meitner seems to have had her head screwed on very straight and came through the dark phases to light at the other side.
During her long working life she certainly won many awards, prizes and accolades; most recently, one of the newly- synthesised elements, number 109 on the Periodic Table, was named meitnerium in her honour. In some circles she was lauded as a science heroine, and many of her supporters maintained their anger at her missing the Nobel, categorically stating that her theory came before Hahn’s experiments; others, such as the online Encylopaedia Brittanica have followed the “Hahn camp”, which states that Hahn did the chemistry first without input from Meitner, who only after that developed her theory.
I have enjoyed re-reading about this very exciting time in physics, the first half of the 20th century, particularly biography by Ruth Lewin Sime. This has reinforced two observations about human nature that have always been hard for me as a scientist, to accept: that hindsight is a wonderful thing; and that humans do not always act according to the rules of logic.
In an outline of her life and work; there certainly are times when she was upset, and events that made her angry. Otto Robert Frisch, who worked in her laboratory at one time and remained close to her for the rest of her life, described her as “short, dark and bossy”. Hmmm. Maybe she was a little cranky after all!
In Austria up to1899, girls were not permitted to be educated within the public university system. In that year, with the encouragement of her parents, particularly her lawyer father, Lise Meitner had private tutoring to prepare her for an external examination for admittance in 1901. She was one of four girls (out of 14 applicants that year) to be admitted to the University of Vienna. Her sister had entered the University as a medical student the previous year.
The lecturer in physics and Philosophy of Science was the very famous Ludwig Boltzmann, who accepted women in his classes as a matter of course. His daughter had also gained entry the same year. Meitner felt that he opened up “a new and wonderful world” to her. His enthusiastic explanations of the theory were clear, and she took to the experimental like a duck to water. In 1906 she became the second woman to get a doctoral degree in physics from that university.
In later life, she wrote: “thinking back … one realises how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls … Among the most difficult. was the possibility of normal intellectual training.” 2
What inspired these women pioneers like Meitner? Obviously, her family had both intellectual and financial resources, but even so why would they think about a profession at all, at a time women were not allowed in the University? Today we think it very important to provide young people – particularly women and minority groups – with examples of successful people like themselves. But these pioneer women had very few role models. It seems that artists need to paint, writers to write, mathematicians to do calculations (little Lise, aged eight, slept with a maths book under her pillow ) and scientists to do science. What inner forces pushed them to continue, I wonder? I am very glad that they did, and I wish I could tell them about the legacy they have left for us.
Perhaps there is a clue in a letter Lise Meitner wrote to a woman friend in Berlin: “I love physics with all my heart. I can hardly imagine it not being part of my life. It is a kind of personal love, as one has for a person to whom one is grateful for many things. And I, who tends to suffer from a guilty conscience, am a physicist without the slightest guilty conscience.” 2
Her work in Vienna, then Germany was well respected but initially not well rewarded 2
After graduation, she taught school during the day (which she didn’t like) and continued voluntary research in the physics department in the evenings. Having found there was no position available in Marie Curie’s laboratory, she decided to try her wings in Berlin at the prestigious Friedrich-Willhelm-Universitat. Her father provided her with encouragement, and more importantly, an allowance.
In Berlin at that time, the famous physicist Max Planck generally did not approve of women in his classes, but he considered it “unjust” to deny the few exceptionally gifted women “the means to study”. But he allowed Lise to attend his lectures. She also obtained a position in the experimental physics institute, as an assistant without pay, working with a chemist her same age, Otto Hahn. He had been in England and also in Montreal working with Rutherford, and was fascinated by the new phenomenon of radioactivity. Meitner had experience in the physical measurements of radioactive substances in Vienna, so they made a great team. Their association lasted 31 years, and then their collaboration at a distance longer than that. Their friendship lasted all their lives – they were born a few months apart, and died within a few months of each other, aged 90.
However, the head of that Institute, Emil Fischer (another famous name, this time a chemist) would not allow her to enter the main part of the building, so she and Hahn set up a laboratory in the basement. However, one year later when women were officially admitted to the university, Fischer welcomed them and even installed a ladies’ toilet.
What a magic time to be doing physics and chemistry in Europe! Lise Meitner worked with all the famous names that, as a scientist, I have admired. Many of them (such as Einstein, Bohr, Planck himself) became her great friends, and with others she communicated regularly about the increasing knowledge of the atom and its nucleus (people such as Irene Curie and Rutherford and Heisenberg). Those who were in Berlin would have musical evenings and dinner parties at each others’ homes. Meitner and Hahn would sing or hum Brahms Lieder together in the lab when their work was going well. Lise published and presented papers in her own name, as well as jointly with Hahn.
Although there were several other women physicists working in Europe at that time, Lise still couldn’t get away from being a woman in a man’s world. To supplement the allowance her parents gave her, she sometimes translated documents from English for a science journal, and would sign her work L. Meitner. As a result of her articles, the editor of Brockhous encyclopaedia asked if “Herr Doktor” could write an article on radioactivity. When he found that it was a “Fraulein Doktor”, he replied that he “would not think of printing an article written by a woman!” 2 This was just one example of condescending or discriminatory comments that she encountered. Admittedly, some were unintentional or meant playfully; but surely they rankled with her, as they would have with me.
Meitner’s professional break came in 1912 when a new scientific institution – the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes – was built with a type of public-private partnership. Emil Fischer was appointed chairman, and gave her an equivalent position as Hahn’s, although her salary was less than his until after WWI.
Meitner and Hahn had an official, newly built radiochemistry laboratory to call their own. Everyone who worked with them was trained in exceptional cleanliness. Twenty-five years later, Meitner’s lab was still clean enough to be used to study weakly radioactive substances.
Then there was a war and the rise of the Nazis
During the early part of WWI Lise worked alone managing the laboratory and the ongoing experiments, and communicating regularly with Hahn who was in the Army. During this time, she conducted the long and tortuous chemistry separations to isolate a newly-discovered radioactive element, that they called protactinium. Hahn refused the offer to be author of one of the resulting papers, but as a courtesy she put his name as senior author on another. It was, after all, “his” chemistry and not “her” physics that finally proved the existence of this substance.
In a gesture that would have made her pleased and not at all cranky, one of their colleagues had suggested calling the new element ‘Lisotto’ after Lise herself.
Having heard that Marie and Irene Curie were working as X-ray technicians, she applied to do the same to help the war effort on her side, and she was sent to help set up a barracks hospital. Her knowledge of laboratory equipment stood her in good stead, and she became the fix-it person when anything from electrical cables to glass syringes needed repairs.
After the war she moved up the complicated German academic ladder achieving promotional positions at the University of Berlin in 1919 (becoming the first female Professor), 1920, 1922 and 1926. She also received prestigious international awards and prizes during this time.
For the 1922 promotion, she was required to present a paper and she chose the title “The significance of radioactivity for cosmic processes”. One of the academic press publications requested her permission to publish her paper “The significance of radioactivity for cosmetic processes” (The German translates directly into English and the joke is the same). She did regard this with amusement. But maybe it did annoy her.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, the scientists – who had a long tradition of being apolitical – generally opted for business as usual, even though they were now politically committed to ‘alignment’ with the new regime. Some were actively anti-Nazi, such as Fritz Strassman, who was therefore unemployable elsewhere until Meitner and Hahn found a position for him as their assistant. He was an excellent chemist. Some were against the regime, but thought they had a duty to maintain the momentum of German science and train the next generation. Some, like Einstein, wanted nothing to do with his home country and he remained in America and never came back. Some, like Planck, remained to fight the reich from inside (although many moved their families to safer countries). Some, of course, were Nazis and they tended to be put into positions of authority, even if they did not have the same qualifications as the people they replaced. However, everyone knew of Jewish academics who were dismissed, and many Jewish families emigrated at that time. But no-one had any inkling of the unimaginable horrors that were to follow.
Although Meitner was of Jewish descent, she had converted to Lutherism as a young woman. She had also served as an X-ray technician during the war and had high academic status. All these things seemed to be enough to give her protection, so she decided to stay in Germany when many Jewish colleagues emigrated. Anyway, where would she go? The work was going well, and she was overseeing the building of a new machine called a cyclotron that would enable her to identify radioactive elements in new and exciting ways. This would help her solve a puzzle that many physics labs around the world were trying to solve – some unusual breakdown products from the irradiation of uranium with neutrons.
Then came the annexation of Austria in 1938. Meitner was not given any exemptions after all, and it became imperative for her to emigrate.
Her friends and scientific colleagues in other European countries rallied together, and she was offered several different positions. She accepted one in a new Swedish research institute, still thinking she would be able to get the necessary documents legally and arrange an orderly migration. But her Austrian passport was now invalid and suddenly the authorities clamped down on Jewish intellectuals leaving the country. They did not want ‘Jewish science’ to be presented to the world as ‘German science’. She left immediately and secretly (helped by a Dutch colleague) with only two small suitcases and virtually no money.
She was later to regret staying so long; partly for moral and political reasons, but also so she could have arranged her emigration in a more orderly way.
To make matters worse, she was not really accepted in the Swedish institute where she had been promised a temporary position – she had lab space and high-tech equipment, but no staff and none of the bits and pieces required to do experiments, (“no pumps, no rheostats, no capacitors, no ammeters…”)2 and not even her own set of keys. The director, an eminent scientist who was on the Nobel committee, seemed only interested in his own research, and the development of any other research was very slow.
She maintained that, although she was lonely and frustrated about this, she was not bitter.
In the meantime, she maintained correspondence with Hahn and Strassmann in Berlin. Strassmann, who actually did some of the strategic chemistry experiments, always maintained that she was the intellectual leader of the group even in absentia.
She was now sure, from their continued analysis of the products of bombarding uranium with neutrons, that there must be some unusual products. Irene Curie in Paris and others were also onto the problem. There was something there that no-one could understand. There was a race on, to find the solution to the puzzle.
Eventually, Meitner convinced Hahn and Strassmann to look for the element barium, which, if it were present, would indicate that the uranium nucleus had split almost in half. For various reasons due to its solubility and the presence of other similar elements such as radium, barium was difficult to isolate (some other scientists, including Strassmann, had suspected its presence before but no-one had actually found it). There were secret meetings and coded correspondence because it was politically dangerous for Hahn to admit he was in contact with Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch (who was now working with Bohr in Denmark).
In December 1938, finally Hahn and Strassmann found evidence of barium. During the Christmas break, Lise met her nephew Otto Robert at a friend’s place in Denmark for Christmas, and together they mulled over the results and performed the calculations while sitting on a log in the forest, to see if it was physically possible and theoretically logical for uranium to split apart, working with the known values for the energies of the particles that were produced. It was. Their ideas were inspired partly by the ‘liquid drop’ model of the nucleus that had been proposed a year earlier – it helped them both with the visualisation of fission, and with the calculations. Meitner had interpreted the physics, Hahn had confirmed the chemistry. But it was politically impossible for them to publish together.
Hahn’s paper with the chemical results was published first, followed about a month later by the Meitner-Frisch paper describing the theory and presenting the calculations. At this time, Frisch coined the term ‘fission’ for the first time, in an analogy with the way biological cells divided.
Another war and its aftermath
Although Lise’s initial position in Sweden turned out to be less than satisfactory, at least she did not have to flee again as she would have if she had taken alternative offers in The Netherlands or Denmark. She almost took a position at Cambridge, UK, where Rutherford was now working, but the timing did not work out. It was not until after WWII that she obtained a position and salary, at another institution in Sweden, more suited to her experience and personality. Surely this disruption and upheaval would be enough to make anyone else rather cross; and at times she was in despair about her situation, but realised that she had ‘dodged some bullets’ and it could have been a lot worse for her.
At the first institution, her main frustration was that she did not have access to the equipment she needed to do some vital experiments, that she was sure would lead to the verification of the first synthetic ‘trans-Uranium’ (larger than uranium) element, number 93 on the periodic table. Her theoretical calculations had convinced her it was there in the mixture they obtained when they discovered fission. However, until the late 1930s, the machines (cyclotrons) were not available in order to do the work. She had no access to the one she had built in Germany.
Eventually she went to Copenhagen, to the laboratory of Niels Bohr where her nephew was working, ready to do that final experiment. It was the day of the invasion of Norway by the Nazis, so they could not do those experiments at that time. Seven weeks later, the group at Berkely, USA did find element 93, which they called Neptunium. Later they also found number 94, Plutonium, in the same mixture, and this work eventually led to a Nobel prize for that American group.
Back in Germany during the war, Meitner’s name was obliterated from much of the work she had done over the previous 30 years. She knew this was inevitable. She wrote about being part of the suppressed history. There was an attempt to not only obliterate the Jews, but also any memory that they had contributed to German society or science. But even after it was all over, Hahn appears to have had selective memory, seeming to rationalise the history and to really believe that he had been the one who had done most of the important work. He was hailed as a hero of German science after the war, and even one of the museums which displayed Meitner’s physics equipment, had a label which named only Hahn.
At the end of the war, she wrote him a letter expressing all the crankiness and frustration she felt – but for various political reasons, he never received it. At least it gives us an idea that these things frustrated her, even if she understood their underlying reasons. Nevertheless, the friendship between Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn remained. I suppose we all maintain friendships and relationships, even when we know the faults of our loved ones.
In 1943, Lise was asked to join the Manhattan Project – her nephew Otto Robert was going there. But she refused, and is reported as saying “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!” 2
She was distressed when she heard about the bomb on Hiroshima, but reporters found her and she was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt on radio. Even though she tried to distance her science from the actual event, the stories spread around the press outlets, and she was known for a time in America as “the Jewish mother of the bomb”. She must have been very cranky at all those references in that phrase, because in her mind, none of them were true.
As I read more of the details of her life, I became even more frustrated on her behalf.
But by now I think I was starting to understand. When the Nobel prize was eventually awarded to Hahn, it 1945 and the war was over. By then Lise understood the implications of her research, and perhaps that is why she wasn’t quite as upset as people expected, when she was not included. She was more upset that she was touted as being Hahn’s pupil or assistant, and not his colleague, and that he did nothing to negate this view.
She may also have been hoping for a Nobel prize in physics – that would have meant more to her than a shared one in chemistry. But despite some lobbying by her long-term friends, this never happened either.
After another fifteen years in Sweden, she spent her final eight years in England to be near her beloved nephew and colleague, Otto Robert and his family. In 1966, two years before her death, she and Hahn and Strassmann were jointly awarded the US Atomic Energy Commission’s Enrico Fermi Prize “for their independent and collaborative contributions to the discovery of fission”. In a letter to Hahn, Lise expressed happiness for him, but said she only had a “kind of pleasure”. Otto Robert asked her why only a “kind of pleasure”, and she replied that she had mixed feelings “because of the bomb”.
If I ever get to choose a person from history with whom to have dinner, then I will pick Lise Meitner so that I can find out how cranky she really was, and what – among those mixed feelings – really made her mad. In the meantime, I maintain the rage on her behalf.
About Deidre Tronson
I used to be a Mad Scientist, and now I am the Good Little Banksia Lady.
I joined my husband in retirement on our hobby farm after 34 years in various (mostly part-time) positions teaching and/or doing research in chemistry and biochemistry. We have lived here since 1980, when our three children were tiny. We grow proteas and banksias for the Sydney markets, among other farm-like hobbies.
Since we live in the Centre of the Universe – defined as equally as inconvenient to get anywhere else, in any direction – we have the world come to us in the form of international backpackers in the Help Exchange (HelpX) scheme. They help us on the farm, and we provide food, lodgings and English conversation.
My aim of being lazy during retirement has not been achieved – YET. I keep up with science activities such the federally-funded Scientist in Schools program and I write a variety of science articles for a general audience.
I also indulge in the passion for writing non-science short stories and poems that I have had since I was five (I still have the book I wrote then to prove it). Some of my pieces have been broadcast on ‘Country Viewpoint’, which was a segment on ABC-RN that now no longer exists, but it gave me both incentive and confidence to keep writing when my articles were chosen.
I am very pleased, during my life, to have been outwardly cranky enough to help make some small changes that have improved the employment opportunities for women in universities. I am also extremely proud of my two daughters who are both becoming usefully cranky within their own professions.
 http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/251675/Otto-Hahn [accessed march 2014]
 Ruth Lewin Sime (1996) “Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics” available free from openlibrary as ebook (https://openlibrary.org)