Lise Meitner gets own room at Chalmers

Friday September 19, the Lise Meitner Room was opened in Origo House on Chalmers campus. The room is named after the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered, in Sweden, how and why the nucleus of an atom can be split. This year’s Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award was presented in her memory to Dutch Professor Ewine F van Dishoeck.

The room was inaugurated in the presence of Mats Viberg, First Vice President, Dinko Chakarov the Chairman of the Lisa Meitner Association, architects and a furniture restorer, among others. It has been hidden from the outside world for a long time, but among the rubble was found the original furniture, fume hoods, and more, from 1926. These have now been restored and adapted, contemporary furniture has been added and one wall features Lise Meitner’s portrait. The room, on the fourth floor of Origo House, will be used as a meeting place for students, personnel and guests of the Department.

Called the Mother of Nuclear Power
Lise Meitner has been called the Mother of Nuclear Power. Although she worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin for many years, she allegedly did not work directly with mustard gas and other nerve gases that were researched there for military purposes.
She also declined the invitation from the Americans to the Manhattan Project, an essential part of developing the atomic bomb and which helped USA beat Germany to the finishing line in terms of harvesting nuclear energy and initiating the process that lead to the atomic bomb.
– I will have nothing to do with a bomb, Lise Meitner supposedly said in response, and expressed the opinion that the discovery of harvesting nuclear energy should be used in the energy and health care fields.

Applied for university studies
Lise Meitner was born 1878 in Vienna as the third of eight children in a Jewish family.
Girls were not expected to apply to universities at that time, but Lise Meitner convinced her father to allow her apply as a private candidate.
She prepared for the test in two years instead of the normal four years. And, if you are to believe Hedvig Hedqvist’s biography Kärlek och kärnfysik (Love and nuclear physics) 2012, partially assisted by a lamp under her eiderdown. The love is in reference to the relationship between Lise Meitner and the physicist Eva von Bahr. The latter played a major part in persuading her friend to flee Germany at the last minute in 1938.

PhD in Physics
Lise Meitner obtained her PhD in Physics at the university in Vienna in 1905, being the second woman to do so. Her father had passed away at the beginning of the new century and it was hard for her mother and siblings to take care of her expenses. As a consequence she became a teacher and taught at a girls’ school for a year. This was far from being her dream job and her longing for research was so strong that she moonlighted at the university's laboratories for the benefit of her own studies.
Planck was impressed
After listening to the father of quantum theory, the German physicist Max Planck, at a lecture in Vienna, she decided to move to Berlin to attend his lectures. Women were only admitted if there were seats leftover, but Lise Meitner still managed to impress him. Before she turned 30, she was working under Max Planck and others at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, on radioactivity to begin with, but later nuclear physics.
Lise Meitner was asked if she would like to collaborate with Otto Hahn in the development of this atomic age. They started a lifelong collaboration and seemingly never become unfriendly with each other, even though he is accused of stealing her glory when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944. Without Lise Meitner’s analysis, the prize might have been awarded to any of the other scientists who were doing similar research at the same time.

Was working in the basement
For five years they worked in a carpentry workshop in the basement of the Institute. Many had reservations about accepting female researchers - there were, for example, no toilets for women, they were not allowed to frequent the same cafe as male employees and women were long denied access to laboratories. One scientist explained that women’s hairdos were too dangerous for lab work.
Lise Meitner realized this disadvantage and often signed her scientific articles L Meitner, to avoid her gender creating an obstacle in how they were received.
In 1919, at the age of 48, Lise Meitner was employed at the University of Berlin as a full professor and became the first woman in Germany to hold a full professorship. Two years earlier she had obtained a Professor’s title from the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and given her own department that did not work with military research. She also continued to work at the Institute and made several new discoveries with Otto Hahn.

Living with Eva von Bahr
In 1912, the physicist Eva von Bahr had come to Berlin and the two women developed a relationship described in Hedvig Hedqvist’s book Kärlek och kärnfysik (Love and nuclear physics). They lived together for a couple of years in Berlin, and Lise Meitner’s longing for her company can be seen in the numerous letters that have been preserved. But the war, death and Eva von Bahr's marriage came between them.

Met in Copenhagen and Kungälv
In 1933, when Hitler took over as Chancellor, Eva von Bahr and Lise Meitner met in Copenhagen and Kungälv. After that, they were not in contact for five years; one of the reasons might have been their different opinions on war. Eva von Bahr was seen as a liberal atheist while her girlfriend was regarded as a social democratic friend of Germany.
Lise Meitner designated herself as an opponent to war, despite having emphasized Germany’s greatness during the World War I when she claimed that the way Germany waged war was fairer than other countries. Not least, she said at the time, that the German race and culture was superior to others, even though she herself was of Jewish origin. That she had converted to Protestantism in 1908, her work as a nurse during World War I and her long-term research efforts in Berlin did not help her when the Nazis began their persecution of Jews. She was obliged to confess her non-Aryan heritage, but escaped into her research milieu, presumably in to avoid the threat from the increasing number of brown shirts at the Institute.

Had her passport revoked
Her precarious situation had, however, been noticed by her friends Eva von Bahr, the Danish nuclear physicist and Nobel laureate Niels Bohr, and several Swedish researchers. In connection with the Anschluss, that is, Germany's occupation of parts of Austria, Lise Meitner was also stripped of her passport which no longer protected her. Like something in a thriller, Hedvig Hedqvist describes the escape, first to Holland, then Denmark and finally Sweden and Manne Siegbahn’s Nobel Institute for experimental physics.
Consequently, Lise Meitner worked at FOA and KTH, where she participated in the construction of the first Swedish nuclear reactor. After a while she obtained her own position with a Professor’s salary at the University of Stockholm. She became a Swedish citizen in 1949. 

Collaborated in secret
The collaboration with Otto Hahn continued in secrecy after Lise Meitner’s escape to Sweden. He continued to experiment with irradiating uranium with neutrons, but failed to understand what was happening. He described his dilemma in a letter to Lise Meitner in December of 1938. She was visiting Eva von Braun in Kungälv over Christmas with her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, the physicist. They plodded through the snow, intently discussing and while sitting on a tree-stump, Lise was the first person to figure out that the uranium must have been split in half. The revolutionary hypothesis that nuclear fission occurs when uranium is exposed to neutron irradiation was launched. It is widely thought that Lise Meitner’s description of a nuclear fission, later called fission, changed world history.
She was to receive several awards, including the Max Planck Medal, various honorary titles and was elected into the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The element Meitnerium, an unstable radioactive synthetic element, is named after her.
Hedvig Hedqvist opines that the gossip about Lise Meitner not enjoying life in Sweden is exaggerated. Preserved letters and diaries testify to a rich social life and continued curiosity in research. However, in 1960 she moved in with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch in Cambridge and died in 1968, shortly before she would have turned 90.

Ewine van Dishoeck and Chalmers first vice president Mats Viberg.Pioneering work awarded
This year, the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award was awarded to Dutch Astrophysics Professor Ewine van Dishoeck. She was born and raised in Leiden, where she has remained faithful to its University apart for a sojourn of six years to the United States where she is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In Holland, she has a seat in the Royal Academy of Sciences. Ewine van Dishoeck was presented with the award for her pioneering work on the role that molecules and small dust grains play in places in space where stars and planets are born.
The day before the ceremony a tribute seminar with Ewine van Dishoeck was held in Fysicum with the title “From molecules to planets and stars”. After the award ceremony on September 19, the awardee delivered a popular science lecture titled “Building stars, planet and ingredients of life between the stars”. Ewine van Dishoeck took the opportunity to launch an app to encourage children and teens to become interested in the universe.

The Municipality of Kungälv is supporting the event, along with Fysicum at Chalmers and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences via Nobel’s Institute for Physics. The prize has been awarded every year since 2006 to a scientist who has made a breakthrough discovery in physics.

Text: Cajsa Carrén
Photo: Sabina Johansson

Read more about the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award

Published: Tue 21 Oct 2014.