NBA History of Science Seminar

Ruth Lewin Sime, "Lise Meitner and the Discovery of Nuclear Fission."

When the discovery of nuclear fission was first reported in 1939, it appeared that the chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann performed the crucial experiments, while the physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch provided the first theoretical explanation.

Ruth Lewin Sime, Sacramento City College

Ever since, historical accounts have tended to emphasize that divide, as did the award of the Nobel Prize in chemistry to Hahn alone. But history and the published record can be deceptive, and Nobel committees can make mistakes.

In this talk, I will show how Meitner and nuclear physics were as crucial to the fission discovery as chemistry, and that the attribution for the discovery was distorted by Meitner's forced emigration, the political conditions in Nazi Germany, and the widespread "forgetting" of the postwar period.

Ruth Lewin Sime is author of the much-acclaimed book, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (The University of California Press, 1996).