Brought to Audiences in Partnership with Scientific American and PRX
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 7, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — New translations of hundreds of letters explain, in a two-part episode of Lost Women of Science, why physicist Lise Meitner was not awarded the Nobel Prize in 1944 for splitting the atom. Instead, it was given to her long-time collaborator, chemist Otto Hahn.
The first episode airs today and the second on September 14.
For her recent biography The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner, author Marissa Moss translated letters between Meitner and Hahn written during and after World War II. They strongly suggest that Hahn did not fully understand the results of his own work, relying heavily on Meitner to interpret his experiments.
After Meitner realized that Hahn had split the atom, she, along with her nephew, physicist Otto Robert Frisch, coined the phrase ‘nuclear fission’ in a paper they published in February 1939.
According to Moss, multiple letters between Meitner and Frisch “reveal Meitner’s fraught relationship with Hahn, and the lengths to which she went to understand his refusal to give her credit for her work before and after the 1944 Nobel Prize was awarded.” Through these exchanges, Meitner and Frisch conclude that Hahn sought to protect his reputation with the Nazis because Meitner was Jewish.
Hahn didn’t even mention Meitner’s name when he accepted the 1944 Nobel Prize in December 1946.
“Meitner’s contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission were well-known even before the war. But these letters strongly suggest that antisemitic pressure from the Nazi regime and German scientific community led Hahn to take all the credit. It’s the kind of injustice that female scientists have faced through the ages – being denied recognition based not only on their gender, but also their race, religion, nationality, or sexuality,” said Katie Hafner, host and co-executive producer of Lost Women of Science. “We are proud to be able to tell her story in full.”
Although Hahn did share the Nobel prize money with Meitner and nominated her for subsequent prizes, she never received the Nobel Prize that was rightly hers to share for nuclear fission.
Meitner was also an early opponent of atomic weapons and refused an invitation to join J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project.
About Lost Women of Science:
The Lost Women of Science Initiative is a 501(c)3 nonprofit with two overarching and interrelated missions: to tell the story of female scientists who made ground-breaking achievements in their fields, yet remain largely unknown, and to inspire girls and young women to pursue education and careers in STEM. The Initiative’s funders include the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Schmidt Futures, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
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SOURCE Lost Women of Science