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No. 305:
Lisa Meitner

Today, we meet the reluctant mother of the atom bomb. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

In 1939 an English physicist received a cable from Sweden, and it seemed to make no sense. The clouds of WW-II were gathering over Europe, and here came a chatty cable about somebody he'd never heard of named Maud Ray Kent. Now who was Maud Ray Kent!

But he knew the woman who sent the wire: she was a noted physicist named Lisa Meitner. She had a doctorate from Vienna, and in 1908 she'd gone to work for Max Plank in Berlin. Her close colleague there was another young physicist named Otto Hahn. Their association stretched into a 60-year friendship.

Women weren't allowed to work in the laboratory, so Hahn and Meitner had created their own lab in a carpenter's shop. They worked on nuclear fission until WW-I. Then Meitner joined the Austrian army as an X-ray technician. But she kept working with Hahn whenever they both could get away on leave. By 1918 they'd created a new element they called protactinium. You probably haven't heard of it, but check your periodic table -- it's there.

By war's end, Germany had lost a whole generation of males, and opportunities had briefly improved for women. Meitner was made head of the physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin. There she and Hahn went to work on a and b radiation. Sixteen years later they were bombarding heavy elements with fast neutrons. It was finally Meitner who realized what enormous energy was released when uranium fissioned into barium.

But she was Jewish and a committed pacifist as well. She found a twisted path out of Germany. She fled first to Holland on an invalid passport, then to Niels Bohr's home in Copenhagen. She finally got across the North Sea to Sweden, just ahead of Nazi patrol boats. There she published a clear explanation of nuclear fission energy in 1939. Her paper expressed hope for a "promised land of atomic energy." Her aims had nothing to do with bombs; but of course her paper launched furious bomb-making efforts among the warring nations.

Later in 1939 she sent that strange cable to her friend in England. And he understood the name Maud Ray to be code for radium. The telegram warned him the Germans were stockpiling radium, and Meitner didn't like the implications of that one bit.

We soon got word through to her asking her to join the Manhattan Project. But she didn't like that any better. Six years later she was appalled to see how quickly her work led to devastation in Japan.

Years later, Lisa Meitner became the first woman to receive a share of the Fermi Award for her physics -- and, implicitly, for her contributions to the bomb she never wanted to make.

She was 88 and begged off -- said she wasn't up to the trip, so Glenn Seaborg went to London and brought the prize to her.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Rhodes, R., The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Touchstone Books, 1986.

Vare, E.A. and Ptacek, G., Mothers of Invention. New York: Quill, 1987.