For every Marie Curie or Rosalind Franklin whose story has been told, hundreds of female scientists remain unknown to the public at large. In this series, we illuminate the lives and work of a diverse array of groundbreaking scientists who, because of time, place and gender, have gone largely unrecognized. Each season we focus on a different scientist, putting her narrative into context, explaining not just the science but also the social and historical conditions in which she lived and worked. We also bring these stories to the present, painting a full picture of how her work endures.
We continue the story of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner, the first person to understand that the atom had been split. This is the second in a two-part series featuring new letters from and to Lise Meitner translated by author Marissa Moss, author of The Woman who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner (2022). The letters show the fraught and complex relationship between Otto Hahn and Meitner and the role that antisemitism played in the decision to give the Nobel Prize in 1944 to Hahn and not Meitner.
After the discovery of nuclear fission, Meitner grappled with its implication: the advent of nuclear weapons and who would get credit for the discovery of nuclear fission. This would lead to a breakdown of Meitner and Hahn’s decades-long scientific collaboration. Meitner, who had fled Germany because of the Nazis, was horrified at the thought of an atomic bomb. She also faulted Hahn for not speaking out about Nazi atrocities, and questioned his character, though she remained loyal to him to the end. It was their working relationship that defined her life.