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It is quite fitting that Austrian Lise Meitner, a physicist and pioneer in Max Planck's quantum circle in Berlin, would have such a rare, short-lived element named after her. She was long-lived herself (1878-1968) and nominated four times for the Nobel Prize for her interpretation of nuclear fission in 1938, after a traumatic escape from Nazi Germany -- despite the fact that her research partner for over 30 years, Otto Hahn, was awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fission.

After a dramatic escape from Nazi Germany in 1938, orchestrated by Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and many colleagues worldwide, Meitner worked through the war years in the Stockholm-based Nobel Institute for Physics.

It was a fateful letter from Hahn asking her to explain his finding of barium when uranium was bombarded with neutrons that led to her famous interpretation of nuclear fission. Nazi officials had been notified not to let the Jewish woman scientist out of Berlin, but alone with the 34-year-old nephew Otto Robert Frisch over the holidays, Meitner had the insight to recognize that a tremendous amount of energy would be released in this new process, nuclear fission. They wrote up their findings for Nature, which were published in February of 1939 and confirmed by Frisch at Bohr's Institute.

When Bohr made the announcement of fission to colleagues in America in January 1939, John A. Wheeler "let the cat out of the bag" by announcing it to a student group in Princeton. However, their March 1939 "Mechanism of Nuclear Fission" paper in Nature gave full credit to the teams of Meitner and Frisch, as well as Hahn and Strassmann.

Hence, most chemists and physicists were shocked after World War II that she did not receive her share of the credit by sharing the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Hahn, though Meitner was duly lauded in America. She was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt on NBC Radio immediately after the bombing of Nagasaki and arrived for her first trip to the U.S. in 1946, where she was named "Woman of the Year" by the U.S. Women's Press Club. She dined with Harry Truman in the White House (January 1946); was awarded more than 10 honorary doctorate degrees; and, by the end of her life, had received the prestigious Order of the Pour le Mérite Award (shared with Hahn), presented by the president of Germany in 1961, and the Enrico Fermi Award.

To her credit, Meitner was the first woman in all of Austria to earn a Ph.D. in physics (under the esteemed Ludwig Boltzmann and Stefan Meyer) and hence participated in the fierce debates about the "reality" of the atom before moving to Berlin in 1907. There, working first as a postdoc assistant to Max Planck, she spent long hours in a refurbished carpenter's shop outside of the Institute for Chemistry, counting -decay chains on a "scintillating screen" while Hahn worked out the complex chemistry relating to their joint field of "radioactivity." His mentor, Ernest Rutherford, would send them packages in the mail, and Meitner was known to startle the postman when her Geiger counter (made by their friend Hans Geiger) would go off before he announced that a parcel had arrived from Cambridge, England. Meitner also spent time playing concert piano while Albert Einstein played his violin during friendly evenings at Planck's home, and she was a dear friend of Max von Laue, Paul Ehrenfest, Geiger, and other physicists and chemists in their small, intimate circle of Berlin scientists.

Meitner volunteered in one of the first primitive mobile X-ray units during World War I. After the war, she returned from her Austrian family to remain in Berlin until Hitler's rise to power drove many of her colleagues away. Hahn became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, and Planck was the president of the KW Gesellschaft, so they protected Meitner until 1938, when the racist policies of the Third Reich drove her, at age 65, to finally escape from Germany.

Meitner's contributions to both science--more than 120 articles published on radioactive substances and their properties--and society are long lasting. As this pioneer said in Cambridge, England, at the end of her illustrious career: "I believe young people think about how they would like their lives to develop; when I did so, I always arrived at the conclusion that life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty."

Patricia Rife is a historian of science whose book "Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age" is being developed into a screenplay for a film. Rife is a professor in the Graduate School of E-Commerce at the University of Maryland, and she studies the sociocultural impact of science and scientists upon modern societies.

Chemical & Engineering News
Copyright © 2003 American Chemical Society

Name: Named for Lise Meitner, the Austrian physicist who first suggested a theory of spontaneous nuclear fission.
Atomic mass: (268).
History: First synthesized in 1982 by Peter Armbruster, Gottfried Münzenberg, and coworkers at the Gesellschaft für Schwerionenforschung, in Darmstadt, Germany, by bombarding bismuth-209 with accelerated iron-58 nuclei.
Occurrence: Artificially produced. Only a few atoms of meitnerium have ever been made.
Appearance: Metal of unknown color.
Behavior: Highly radioactive.
Uses: No commercial uses.

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