Lise Meitner

Lise MeitnerOn this day in 1878, the great physicist Lise Meitner was born. She had an amazing career. Along with her nephew Otto Frisch and her long-term partner Otto Hahn, she discovered and explained nuclear fission. She also discovered the Auger effect — where the movement of an electron from a higher energy state to a lower energy state releases a photon, which can be absorbed by another electron, causing it to be ejected from the atom. The French physicist Pierre Victor Auger discovered the effect independently a year later. So why is it named after him? Well, that is pretty much the story of Lise Meitner’s life.

Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize for the work he did with Meitner, but again, Meitner did not get the award. You know, she was a girl. I mean they had already given the award to Marie Curie (who interestingly, shares the same birthday — although eleven years earlier). Of course, Meitner did get some extremely prestigious awards such as the Max Planck Medal in 1949 and the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966. She was given both of them along with Hahn. I kind of think the scientific community had figured it out. Although to be honest, I’m not sure why they gave the Planck Medal to Hahn, who was one of the greatest chemists ever, but really didn’t know much of anything about physics.

What’s sad is how common this kind of thing was and I think largely still is. Women in since are a commonplace now. But they are still treated as somewhat suspect. They have to clear a higher bar than men. We really haven’t progressed very far as a culture. But I’d like to think we are making some progress. For another prominent example, see Rosalind Franklin.

Happy birthday Lise Meitner!

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