I always knew I wanted a kickass female sidekick for time traveler Vikram Quine, and it came down to spunky, nuclear physicist Lise Meitner or steampunk goddess Ada Lovelace. Oh I know, Ada would be amazing (think of all the gears!). Don’t worry, I’ll work her in there somewhere. What sealed the deal was that of the two, Meitner seemed more likely to ditch her timeline after hearing how much her work would go unrecognized.
Even before the discovery of nuclear fission, Meitner was making strides in academia. Already gaining the respects of notable notables such as Max Planck, she became the first female physics professor in Berlin. Working with Otto Hahn, she aided in the discovery of several new isotopes and made advancements in the field of radioactivity. Unfortunately, being Jewish in wartime Austria forced her to flee to the Netherlands in 1938, preventing her from ever publicly working with Hahn, she did so anyway, because the reason we do science is because it’s fucking awesome.
In 1939, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann published that they had detected the appearance of barium atoms when bombarding uranium. Meitner realized what was happening and published her results in an independent article, her nephew Otto Robert Frisch confirming her results. As a result, Hahn and Strassman were credited for the discovery, despite the four of them secretly being on the same team. While it was rationalized that Meitner’s flight from Austria and the need to play down her involvement for political reasons, her omission from the Nobel Prize awarded for the discovery of nuclear fission was exacerbated by further burying by Hahn. Only Strassman spoke out to try to get Meitner proper credit. Later, in letters, she would be especially critical of these scientists (including others, such as Heisenberg) who stayed in Nazi Germany to do their work under the Third Reich. Though having an element named after you is a pretty good consolation prize. Not many remember Otto Hahn, but every time you look at a periodic table, there’s Lise Meitner.
Einstein called her “Our Marie Curie” and so the comparisons begin. We could argue ad nauseum over whether or not the only difference between them was two nobel prizes or if it’s a matter of the monumentality of their respective discoveries. Shoulders of giants, and all that. Meitner would go on to be called “the mother of the bomb” (a title she despised) despite refusal to have anything to do with the Manhattan Project or Los Alamos National Labs.
On a “what if” level, I wondered about how events would have unfolded without her. Perhaps Hahn would have taken a few more years to discover fission on his own, scratching his head; looking over his notes; trying to find an explanation for his own results. Would the delayed bomb have been dropped on the Soviet Union instead? Would it not have been dropped by the United States? Something interesting to explore another time.
This post was brought to you by Meitnerium(Mt).
Rachel Zwick wrote a great series of blog articles for the World Science Festival about some of the lesser known, yet essential female figures in science. Meitner and Lovelace are included.