Lise Meitner

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Lise Meitner

Physicist Lise Meitner with her research partner Otto Hahn

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Physicist Lise Meitner, also known as the "mother of the atomic bomb," was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1878 [source: San Diego Supercomputer Center]. After studying physics at the University of Vienna, Meitner teamed up with Max Planck and Otto Hahn to research radioactivity. In 1918, Hahn and Meitner, who would continue their collaboration for years afterward, discovered the element protactinium. Then, in 1923, Meitner deduced the Auger effect, when an atom spontaneously drops one or two electrons in order to stabilize itself [source: Atomic Archive]. The process is named, however, for French physicist Pierre Auger, who identified the atomic reaction two years later, marking the first of Meitner's scientific accomplishments that would be blatantly overlooked.

As her career developed, Europe became politically radioactive, erupting in World War II, which sent Meitner packing for Stockholm after Germany annexed Austria in 1938. By that point, Meitner was experimenting with tossing neutrons at atomic particles, and in 1939, Meitner and Otto Frisch, who was both her nephew and lab partner, named the process of nuclear fission and published a paper on the topic. Splitting atoms apart via nuclear fission would be the key to developing the atomic bomb, but Meitner didn't have a hand in the Manhattan Project, despite her nickname. Although Meitner first discovered nuclear fission, her old research partner Otto Hahn took home the Nobel Prize in chemistry for it in 1944.

Meitner never won a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work and died in 1968. Nevertheless, her legacy lives on in the periodic table. In 1992, a newly discovered radioactive element was dubbed meitnerium, symbol Mt, for the Austrian physicist [source: San Diego Supercomputer Center].

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