When Lise Meitner visited the United States for the first time in 1946, she became the center of a media circus. She was cast as the “Jewish mother of the [atomic] bomb,” based on a story in the Saturday Evening Post by William L. Laurence, who was given nearly exclusive access to the scientists at Los Alamos, the seat of the Manhattan Project. In this 1940 piece, Laurence depicted Meitner as the discoverer of nuclear fission, the process by which nuclei split into roughly equal halves, yielding untold amounts of energy that the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfortunately experienced first-hand. Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped Little Boy upon Hiroshima, already having flown eleven and a half miles away from the site by the time the bomb exploded, recalled, “observing a silver blue flash and experiencing a strange feeling in his mouth, the same feeling as if he touched the lead and silver fillings in his mouth with a fork.”
The 1918 Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were awarded to Fritz Haber and Max Planck, respectively, both German scientists, at a time when German science was at its zenith. These prizes were announced on this day, November 13 in 1919.
Fritz Haber was honored for his method of synthesizing ammonia from its elements, nitrogen and hydrogen, and Max Planck was recognized for the “services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta.”
The lives and work of both these scientists intertwine with that of Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish physicist, whose role in discovering nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, has been underplayed for a few reasons, mainly for being woman and a Jew during Nazi Germany.
Let’s start with Fritz Haber’s contribution. The importance of Fritz Haber’s work, a German Jewish chemist, cannot be underestimated.
As early as 1898 it had been predicted that the world’s population was growing at a faster rate than farms could support. The problem was that, in order to increase produce yields, farms needed more nitrogen than the soil provided naturally.