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Famous physicists: Lise Meitner

Lise MeitnerLise Meitner's work on nuclear physics won a Nobel prize - but not for her.

Meitner was a physicist who started her work in Vienna, where she became the second woman to receive a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Vienna. Once she had her degree, she moved to Berlin and went straight into research work, making a few early discoveries relating to radiation and isotopes (different atomic forms of elements).

Her research was interrupted by the First World War, during which she worked as a nurse, using her physics background to operate X-rays. She returned to research in 1916, and between the wars made various discoveries and became the first woman in Germany to become a full professor of physics.

Although Meitner converted to Christianity in 1908, she was born into a Jewish family. Despite this, she remained in Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, until she was forced to flee in 1938.

However, she was able to stay in contact with chemist Otto Hahn, with whom she had worked with throughout her career. He contacted her when he found a result that he could not explain. His work involved bombarding uranium with neutrons (one of the particles that make up atoms), which he thought would create heavier elements that had never been seen before. However, instead he found that the resulting substance contained barium, an element much lighter than uranium. Meitner was able to explain it: Hahn's experiment had split the uranium atoms apart, releasing a huge amount of energy as it did so. Without realizing it, he had discovered nuclear fission, the process which makes nuclear power - and nuclear bombs - possible.

In 1944, Hahn was given the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery. Meitner's contribution was ignored. While there is no definitive reason why Meitner was not also given the prize, various explanations have been suggested, including the discrimination she had suffered throughout her career due to being a woman and the possibility that the prize committee didn't realize the contribution she had made because she was only able to offer help from a distance after fleeing Germany. She has, however, been honoured with other awards for her work, as well as having the 109th element, meitnerium, named after her.

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