Chemical of the Week 11 – Meitnerium

imageSo back to the Periodic Table for this weeks chemical of the week. It’s a transuranic element with an atomic number 109. Meitnerium will not be found naturally but is produced artificially by bombarding atoms of bismuth-209 (209Bi) with ions of iron-58 (58Fe) using a linear accelerator. As it is difficult to make and its most stable isotope has a half life of eight seconds so it is probably not the most useful element around. Mietnerium was discovered in 1982 and named after the nuclear scientist Lise Mietner and I think her story is worthy of a blog post as Mietnerium is the only element named after a woman.

Lise Mietner was born in Austria in 1878 of Jewish extraction. She was only the second woman in Austria to obtain a PhD and by the 1912 she was working in the Kasier Wilhiem institute with the scientist Otto Hann. Now this is where it starts to get interesting as together they set about trying to make elements heavier than uranium and by 1917 they had discovered protactinium. During World War One Lise worked at the front as an x ray technician and subsequently returned to the Kaiser Wilhiem institute the under the directorship of Otto Hahn to continue her studies.

In 1938, due to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Lise had to flee to Stockholm. It was here that she met up with her nephew Otto Frisch and discussed some of the perplexing results that Otto Hahn had been obtaining. Hahn had been bombarding uranium with neutrons and he found barium in the products. It was Meitner who suggested to her nephew that the uranium may be splitting up and the idea of nuclear fission was born. Frisch then passed this information on to Neils Bohr and he reported it in America to great interest. Hahn meanwhile published a paper about nuclear fission omitting Lise’s contribution. By 1944 Otto Hahn had received a Nobel prize for his work on nuclear fission, with no mention of Lise Meitner.

Lise Mietner should be an inspiration to all scientists. She moved in scientific circles that we can only dream of with contemporaries such as Max Planck, Otto Hahn and Niels Bohr to name a few. Einstein even called her ‘our Marie Curie’. She was devastated by the idea that her scientific discovery had been used in the making of the atomic bomb and refused to work on the Manhattan project. She did not let her snub by the Nobel committee stand in her way, but worked on in Stockholm on her research until she was in her 80s. So the fact that she has an element named after her is a fitting tribute, as her legacy will be on the wall of every chemistry classroom and lab forever !

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