Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Lise Meitner - the forgotten Lady Atomic
Today's successful switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland takes us down an overgrown path that leads from a masterpiece of contemporary music via the Manhattan Project to the forgotten lady seen in my header photo.
Legend has it Manhattan Project scientists working on the atomic bomb at the uranium-enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee listened repeatedly to Nicolas Slonimsky's recording of Edgard Varèse's Ionisation. Scored for thirteen percussionists Ionisation, like many of Varèse's works, takes its title from science. Today ionisation, which is part of the process of nuclear fission, is irrevocably linked with weapons of destruction and the work of Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called Doctor Atomic. But the study of radioactivity and nuclear physics predated the Manhattan Project by decades and many of the key research figures were committed to the peaceful application of their work.
One such figure was Lise Meitner who was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission. Meitner was born into a Jewish family in Vienna in 1878. In 1917, working with German chemist Otto Hahn, she discovered the first long-lived isotope of the element protactinium, and in 1923 made a crucial breakthrough in electron emission. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 Meitner held a senior post in Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. Despite her Jewish background she was protected by her Austrian citizenship, but all the other Jewish scientists were forced from their posts. Meitner stayed working in Germany until the Anschluss in 1938, and her decision to ignore the rise of anti-semitism caused her much regret in later years.
When the Nazis occupied Austria Lise Meitner fled from Germany, at considerable personal risk, to Holland. She then went to Nobel Prize winner Manne Siegbahn's laboratory in Stockholm where she continued her work despite Siegbahn's prejudices against women scientists. She also worked with another Nobel winner Niels Bohr and, somewhat surprisingly, continued to communicate with Otta Hahn and other German scientists by post. Hahn and Meitner went on to meet clandestinely in Copenhagen, and discussions at this meeting led to Hahn's experiments at his Berlin laboratory that made the breakthrough in identifying nuclear fission. The comparative contributions of each of the two scientists is disputed, but there is little doubt that Meitner's contribution was critical to the discovery of nuclear fission. Because of the political situation Meitner could not jointly publish her work with Hahn, and as a result the name of the German scientist was linked to the discovery.
The knowledge that Nazi researchers had considerable expertise in nuclear fusion prompted several eminent Allied scientists led by 1921 Nobel winner Albert Einstein to alert President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the enormous destructive potential of a chain reaction. This action resulted in the establishment of the Manhattan Project. Lise Meitner refused the offer of work at Los Alamos and, unlike Robert Oppenheimer, declared "I will have nothing to do with a bomb". After the war she admitted her error in staying in Germany until 1938, but she was also very critical of Otto Hahn and others who worked for the Third Reich until 1945.
In 1944 Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission. Many historians and scientists believe that the prize should have been jointly awarded to Meitner, and a 1997 article in Physics Today concluded that Meitner's omission was "a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparantely led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist" from a Nobel Prize. Lise Meitner became a Swedish citizen in 1949 and moved to Britain in 1960. She died in Cambridge in 1968 and the inscription on her grave reads "Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity".
* Now playing - Varèse's Ionisation in a new recording, seen below, by I Percussionisti della Scala directed by Renato Rivolta on the enterprising Italian Stradivarius label. The title of the CD is 'Percussion Masterpieces" and that is exactly what you get - Steve Reich's Drumming, Carlos Chavez's Tambuco (a real rare treat), Karlheinz Stockhausen's Zylkus, John Cage's 3rd Construction and Varese's Ionisation. The live recording is excellent, and it provides a wonderful link to Lise Meitner, the forgotten Lady Atomic. Now, who is going to write the opera?
* Klaus Fuchs, The Man Who Stole The Atom Bomb by Norman Moss (ISBN 02461315860 Out of Print). This excellent biography of German scientist Fuchs who defected to Britain in 1933 and went on to work at Los Alamos while passing vital secrets to the Russians led me to Lise Meitner.
* American Pioneers by Alan Rich (ISBN 9780714847696) provided the Varèse connection.
* Fortunately Lise Meitner is well-served with internet resources. Among the best are Lise Meitner Online and Wikipedia. My article unashamedly draws on these, and others.
Now read about Mahler's nuclear message for the German parliament and more about the Manhattan Project.
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