Nuclear Fission
Quantum and Nuclear

Meitner’s escape

Stories from Physics for 11-14 14-16 16-19 IOP RESOURCES

Physicist Lisa Meitner, who many people believe should have been awarded a Nobel Prize for her work on nuclear fission, was involved in a dramatic escape from Nazi Germany. During Hitler’s rise to power, Meitner was working in Berlin. Unlike other Jewish scientists, such as Otto Frisch and Leo Szilard, who were forced to resign their academic posts, Meitner had Austrian citizenship and so was able to carry on working till 1938. As she began to feel increasingly threatened, her academic colleagues rallied to help her escape. Bohr invited her to lecture in Copenhagen, all expenses paid, but Meitner was refused travel documents. With the help of colleagues Otto Hahn and Dirk Coster, with whom she communicated in coded telegrams, Meitner managed to flee to the Netherlands. After her successful escape, Wolfgang Pauli sent Coster a telegram: “You have made yourself as famous for the abduction of Lise Meitner as for [the discovery of] hafnium!”

Meitner travelled from the Netherlands to Sweden, but she was treated as an outsider at the University of Stockholm and had to carry out technical work that was normally done by assistants. After moving to the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm in 1947, her research was better funded, but she was denied the title of professor. On her retirement in 1960, she moved to Cambridge where she continued to lecture and contribute to research.

Over her career, Meitner made significant contributions to fission research, including the discovery of protactinium, and became the first female full professor of physics in Germany. She was nominated for the Nobel Prize in physics 29 times and in chemistry 19 times but she never won. In 1997, element 192 was named Meitnerium in her honour (the only element named solely after a non-mythological woman).

 

References

Nuclear Fission
can be analysed using the quantity Binding Energy
exhibits Chain Reaction
involves Unstable Nucleus
2023 IOP Awards

Teachers of Physics Awards

Recognising and celebrating outstanding contributions to the field of physics education.

Learn more