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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
Stories about the lives we've made
people:Lise Meitner
Born: 7 November 1878, Vienna, Austria
Died: 27 October 1968, Cambridge, England

Pioneer of research into radioactivity, styled by Einstein the 'German Marie Curie'.

In 1905 Meitner became the second woman to take a PhD from the University of Vienna, and in 1907 she moved to the University of Berlin to study under Planck. There she came into contact with Otto Hahn, a chemist working on radioactivity. Meitner was barred from the laboratories because of her gender, but undaunted Meitner and Hahn set up a carpenter's workshop for their experiments. Later Meitner was allowed to co-direct the institute.

During the First World War Meitner served as an X-ray nurse in the Austrian army. She and Hahn did their best to synchronise holidays in order to continue work on the physical properties of radioactive substances. Their research into beta line spectra led to the discovery of protactinium in 1918.

When Hitler invaded Austria in 1938, Meitner - formerly protected by her Austrian nationality - became a potential target for Nazi racial law. Although brought up a Protestant, Meitner was of Jewish stock. Fortunately she was able to escape to Holland and eventually she arrived at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm. It was here she made her most famous contribution to physics.

Hahn and Strassman informed her in 1938 that they had discovered radium among the products of neutron-bombarded uranium. Meitner was sceptical and asked for confirmation; a sheepish reply came admitting that the product had proved to be not radium but barium. The result was still surprising - heavier 'transuranic' elements had been expected. Meitner, with Frisch, who was with her at the time, realised that the bombardment was causing the nucleus to split. They named the process 'nuclear fission', and composed a paper over the telephone (Frisch was now in Copenhagen) shortly afterwards.

Meitner continued to work on fission but refused to become involved with the bomb project - she had laid the foundations for both nuclear power and nuclear destruction - always expressing the hope that it would prove fruitless.

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