Monday, April 13, 2009

Lise Meitner, "our Marie Curie"

Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms. The process is used to this day in nuclear reactors to produce energy. In Ontario, it is used to make almost 50% of our electricity.

Going back to a time of terrible gender discrimination in Germany, a Jewish Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner, discovered nuclear fission with her colleague Otto Hahn (a German chemist) in 1944 (their photo is included to the right). But only Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery.

Historians say that she was not a recipient of the Nobel Prize because, in the midst of these revelations, she had to flee from Nazi Germany, which saved her life but disconnected her from the laboratory and her colleagues. My guess is that nobody fought for her to receive the prize, and if anyone did it didn't help. Other opinions are that Neils Bohr was too excited to keep her insight a secret, or that her being Jewish and female played a role. Maybe we'll never know, but the least we can do is celebrate her intelligence, her courage, and her human nature.

But don't think she wasn't recognized at all for her great scientific mind! She was awarded as "Woman of the Year" by the US National Women's Press Club in 1946, received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949 (and nominated 2 more times), received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966, and had an element named after her in 1997: element 109, meitnerium.

Einstein respected her and called her "our Marie Curie".