Now That’s A Nobel Idea: Noble Prize Nominee Lise Meitner

Noble Prize Nominee Lise Meitner

Did you know who created the Nobel Prize? His name was Alfred Nobel. His last will in 1895 stated that a bulk of his fortune would be given as prizes “in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.” The people who would receive the prizes were those who “have conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” In his lifetime, he made several contributions to science himself, including the invention of dynamite.

Alfred Nobel, creator of the Nobel Prize

We continue our series of highlighting important nominees who may not have won but still had a Nobel Idea. We hope this series leading up to the Nobel Prize Ceremony held on December 3, 2023 will help provide insights for your students.

Our next hero nominee is pioneering physicist, Lise Meitner. Albert Einstein even called her the German Marie Curie.

Lise Meitner and Her Contribution:

Lise Meitner was a brilliant physicist known for her pioneering work in nuclear physics. At a young age, she grew up wanting to study science. However, since women were not allowed to attend university, she became a teacher. She was finally allowed to pursue her higher education at the University of Vienna in Austria, becoming the second woman to earn a PhD in physics

Her most significant contribution came in the late 1930s when she collaborated with Otto Hahn on groundbreaking research in nuclear chemistry. Together, they made a discovery that forever changed our understanding of the atomic nucleus.

At the time, scientists were exploring the properties of atomic nuclei, which are the tiny, dense centers of atoms. Meitner and Hahn were conducting experiments on uranium, a heavy element, by bombarding it with neutrons. What they observed was nothing short of revolutionary. The uranium nuclei were splitting into smaller fragments when hit by the neutrons. This process was named “nuclear fission.”

showcasing the work from Lise Meitner on nuclear fission

The discovery of nuclear fission was a monumental breakthrough in the world of science. It revealed that the nucleus of an atom, previously thought to be indivisible, could be split into two smaller nuclei. This released a tremendous amount of energy in the process. This finding laid the foundation for the development of nuclear reactors and nuclear weapons. It had profound implications for both peaceful and destructive applications of atomic energy.

The Nobel Prize Nomination

Despite her pivotal role in the discovery, Meitner did not receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was awarded to Otto Hahn alone in 1944 for nuclear fission. Many in the scientific community believed that Lise Meitner’s omission from the Nobel Prize was a missed opportunity to recognize her crucial contributions to one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century.

Lise Meitner at work in 1949
Lise Meitner at work in 1949. Source: RTE

Lise Meitner Ongoing Impact and Legacy

Lise Meitner’s contributions to nuclear physics and her pioneering work in the field of nuclear fission have left an indelible mark on the scientific community. Her legacy extends far beyond the confines of a Nobel Prize.

Foundations of Nuclear Physics: 

Lise Meitner’s work on nuclear fission laid the foundation for the entire field of nuclear physics. Her collaboration with Otto Hahn opened the door to the study of nuclear reactions and the behavior of atomic nuclei. The principles and insights she contributed have since been fundamental to understanding not only fission but also nuclear fusion, nuclear energy, and the behavior of matter at the atomic level.

Lise Meitner changing the future of atomic science

The Atomic Age: 

The discovery of nuclear fission had a profound impact on the course of history. It led to the development of nuclear weapons during World War II and the subsequent emergence of the nuclear age. Meitner’s work was pivotal in providing the scientific basis for harnessing nuclear energy, which led to the creation of nuclear reactors and the peaceful applications of atomic energy, such as electricity generation.

Advancements in Energy: 

Nuclear energy, a field largely shaped by the discovery of nuclear fission, has played a critical role in global energy production. Nuclear power plants continue to provide a substantial portion of the world’s electricity. It’s focus is on cleaner and more sustainable energy sources. Meitner’s work, therefore, has contributed to the ongoing exploration of clean energy alternatives and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

nuclear power plant

Influence on Scientific Community: 

Lise Meitner’s journey as a pioneering woman in the sciences serves as an inspiration for aspiring scientists, particularly women in STEM fields. Her remarkable contributions and the recognition she received posthumously, such as the naming of the chemical element 109 as “Meitnerium” in her honor, symbolize the importance of gender equality and recognizing outstanding achievements in the scientific world.

Scientific Curiosity and Resilience: 

Meitner’s story is a testament to the value of scientific curiosity and resilience. Her ability to question established knowledge, collaborate across disciplines, and persevere in the face of adversity exemplifies the qualities that drive scientific progress. Her story continues to inspire future generations of scientists to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

A Physicist Who Never Lost Her Humanity:

Lise Meitner was not only a brilliant physicist but also a scientist with a strong sense of ethics and humanity. During the turbulent times of World War II, when the Manhattan Project was underway to develop the atomic bomb, Meitner chose not to be a part of it stating, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”. 

Lise Meitner refusing to work on the atomic bomb

She had deep concerns about the destructive potential of nuclear weapons and their impact on humanity. Her decision to distance herself from the Manhattan Project reflected her unwavering commitment to the responsible and ethical use of scientific knowledge. It was a testament to her moral principles and her dedication to the betterment of the world through science.

Her nephew and collaborator, Otto Frisch, said it best for her funeral oration. “Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.

Now That’s A Nobel Idea

now that's a nobel idea

Lise Meitner’s work continues to be celebrated for its profound impact on nuclear physics, and her legacy as a pioneering scientist in a male-dominated field endures. Her story serves as a testament to the importance of recognizing the contributions of scientists, regardless of their gender, and highlights the enduring influence of her work on our understanding of the atomic nucleus. She also reminds us to always place our humanity first. 

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