Monday, September 28, 2009

109. Meitnerium


Lise Meitner, Physicist

It's not easy making up a story about Lise Meitner, because the life she really did lead was so much more compelling than fiction could possibly be. Here are the facts, all true:

Born in 1878, Lise Meitner was denied a Nobel Prize, historians today agree, simply because she was female. Indeed, as a woman she faced extraordinary obstacles to merely obtaining an education . Nevertheless, she managed to attend the University of Vienna and graduated in 1906 with a thesis on the conduction of heat in inhomogenous solids. Her first job was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where she had to work in a converted basement studio because only men were allowed into the laboratory. There she and Otto Hahn began research into the element transformations at the high end of the periodic table. Shortly after WWI (when she volunteered to work as a radiologist in an Austrian field hospital), she and Hahn discovered the element protactinium. Not long after that, she was appointed head of the physics department at Kaiser Wilhelm, an extraordinary accomplishment for somebody they had originally hidden away in the cellar.

Through the 1920s and into the 30s, Meitner worked on the relationship between gamma and beta radiation. Then Enrico Fermi determined that when a heavy element was bombarded with neutrons, a heavier isotope of that element was formed. Meitner, Hahn, and Fritz Strassmen set out in search of an explanation for this baffling property of matter. Unfortunately, when Germany annexed Austria, Meitner, a non-practicing Jew, became subject to Nazi persecution. With the aid of Niels Bohr, she fled to Sweden in 1938.

In Sweden, Meitner continued to collaborate with her colleagues by mail. At her direction, Hahn bombarded uranium with neutrons, with peculiar results. Puzzled, he wrote to Meitner, who realized that the uranium nucleus had not merely lost small particles, but had split into barium and krypton with an accompanying release of several neutrons and a massive amount of energy. This phenomenon she named fission.

Max Frisch, Meitner's cousin and scientific confidant, immediately shared this discovery with Niels Bohr, and soon thereafter the two men proved her ideas experimentally. Frisch and Meitner published a paper explaining fission in January, 1939. In 1948, the Nobel Prize for physics was awarded not to Meitner but to Otto Hahn, her collaborator. Disgracefully, Hahn downplayed her contributions for the rest of his life in order to enhance his own prestige.

Lise Meitner, however, appears never to have resented the snub. "I am not important," she once famously said. "Why is everybody making such a fuss over me?" She had her work, and it was enough. She died on October 27, 1968, in Cambridge, England, where she had gone to retire.

In 1972, four years after her death, the Nobel Prize Committee retroactively added her name to the prize which all agreed she deserved.

Actually, that last sentence isn't true. I just threw it in to make this fiction.

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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