The Woman Behind Fision: An Abridged Biography of Lise Meitner

Essay by KaoriHigh School, 10th gradeA, April 2004

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Born in Vienna in 1878, Lise Meitner was one of eight children; her father was among the first group of Jewish men to practice law in Austria. As with Marie Curie (but rare for a woman at the turn of the century), the intellectual atmosphere that surrounded her as a child nurtured her scientific inclination. She had a "marked bent" for mathematics as well, and adopted Madame Curie and Florence Nightingale as her heroines. The shy, quiet, young woman convinced her father to let her study with a private tutor to prepare her for university study. She easily passed the entrance examination to the University of Vienna. With her usual passion, Lise attended every possible lecture--both in the sciences and the humanities. It was immediately clear that she had to get used to being the only woman in a room full of one hundred students. The men tolerated her, but silently.

A particularly difficult calculus problem and an insensitive professor quickly turned her from mathematics to focus completely on physics. She attended Ludwig Boltzmann's lectures, and studied long and hard until she mastered the subjects demanded of physics students. But she hesitated to take the doctoral examinations. The university had awarded only 14 doctorates to women in the last 541 years. Of those, none were in physics. After continual prodding by her tutor, she finally sat for the exams and received her doctorate in 1906.

Despite her parents' hesitations about young women traveling, Lise decided to go to Berlin to attend a series of lectures given by Max Planck. Originally planned as a short visit, she ended up staying there over thirty years. She was fortunate to find a position in the physics institute working as Otto Hahn's assistant. This proved to be one of the outstanding collaborations in...