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
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