A Woman’s Courage

Berlin 1907. A bright cheerful young lady named Lise Meitner was fascinated with the idea of using atomic nuclei as a powerful source of energy. With the help of Otto Hahn she got a job at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry to study the new science of nuclear physics.

Since the staff was not certain having a woman on board would be an asset or a nuisance, they found a place in a woodshed for her to do her work. But by 1912 she became the first woman to have the title of Professor.

During those days uranium was the heaviest element known to man and Lise was intrigued with the idea of bombarding the nuclei of atoms with subatomic particles to make heavier elements. Could there be a heavier element than uranium?

But trouble was on the horizon. In 1933 Adolph Hitler came to power. Lise was of Jewish descent. She would soon find her life as well as her job was in peril. By the mid thirties the Nazis were driving all Jews from the universities.

Hahn tried to help her keep her job as long as he could. But by 1938 Germany annexed Austria and the writing was on the wall. The staff could not risk harboring a Jew. Lise was asked to leave the university.

Meitner’s little heart was shattered. All of her life’s dreams and career were gone. But there was no time to grieve. Lise was in grave danger and she had to leave the country.

Groups in other nations invited her to speak at seminars to give her an excuse to leave Germany. But the Nazis would not allow her to leave.

In July 1938, a friend came and got her and smuggled her out of Germany to Holland. She traveled to Sweden where she corresponded with Hahn who kept her updated with his research.

Hahn found his experiments were producing strange results. Though he bombarded uranium nuclei with neutrons, he was not making the atoms heavier. He was making them smaller. Could an atomic nucleus get only so big?

Meitner realized he was not making larger nuclei. Hahn was splitting atoms.

But this was the puzzle: When the masses of the fission products were added together, the sum turned out to be less than the original mass of the uranium nuclei, about 1/5 the mass of a proton for each nucleus. What happened to the missing mass?

Lise had an idea. She remembered an equation Albert Einstein published in 1905. Energy equals mass times the square of the speed of light. (Actually the equation was published a year earlier by the Austrian physicist Friedrich Hasenohrl though history gives Einstein the credit). Lise put the values of the missing mass along with the energy released into Einstein’s equation. The numbers balanced perfectly.

Lise Meitner now had proof of a startling concept. In the universe matter and energy are interchangeable. With Einstein’s key she unlocked the secret of the power of the sun!

We now know why every second the sun turns 4 million tons of matter into pure energy and we are left with a terrifying footnote in world history. If German society had not been so callous to drive off a bright young girl from her job for being a Jew, Adolph Hitler could have had the atom bomb first.