The discovery of the energy source for the Sun, namely nuclear fusion, occurred around the same time as the concepts about nuclear fission, which were also developed in the late 1930s. The recent release of the movie “Oppenheimer” should be a great reminder of how scientific discovery and progress are both iterative and cumulative processes. Both the Manhattan project and our understanding of what powers the energy source of stars required the 1905 breakthrough by Einstein of his famous E = MC2 equation. However, for Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project it also required the contribution of a much less well known woman physicist by the name of Doctor Lise Meitner who fled Nazi oppression in 1938.
In the above photograph, Lise Meitner is pictured in the front row along with (from left to right) Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern, and Rudolf Ladenburg; Meitner is the only woman in the room. She and her nephew Otto Frisch are the ones who coined the term “nuclear fission” and developed the theoretical models that explained the experimental results of Otto Hahn who would go on to win the 1944 Nobel Prize in physics for nuclear fission. Dr. Meitner was excluded from the Nobel despite her contribution being essential to explaining Hahn’s results. Although it is great to see Hollywood make movies about great figures in science, it is also important to highlight the accomplishments of other people who were critical to the story of success but whose contribution has been ignored or sidelined because they were not white men. So come on Hollywood, let’s see a movie about the Lise Meitner story!