Halloween Costume – Lise Meitner


A friend of mine hosts an annual Halloween party, and I always struggle with coming up with a costume. Another friend posted a link to Take Back Halloween! and I found they had a costume for one of my favorite under-appreciated female scientists: Lise Meitner.

Lise Meitner worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) from 1912-1938 as the physics expert in the physics-chemistry team researching radioactivity. She and Otto Hahn (the chemist of the pair) studied a variety of reactions, including what happened when a uranium atom was bombarded with a neutron.

Unfortunately, in the middle of their research, the Nazis rose to power and annexed Austria. As an Austrian of Jewish decent, Meitner’s position at a German institute was precarious. Banned from leaving the country, she managed to escape anyway.

She continued to correspond with Hahn. Hahn and fellow chemist Fritz Strassman had discovered barium was a result of bombarding uranium.

Meitner, the physicist, then figured out with her nephew that if they used the liquid drop model for the uranium nucleus, the nucleus might split, and they could calculate the energy needed to split the nucleus and the other resulting fragment: krypton. It all fit! They coined the term fission to describe the split. Their paper describing this discovery was published seventy-five years ago.

In recognition of her work, an element was named for her: Meitnerium (109).

Should you wish to read more about her, I highly recommend the biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime.

The Take Back Halloween! page features a young Lise Meitner, but I am going as the Lise Meitner who escaped from Germany. Although in real life she did not really escape from Germany with the secret to the atomic bomb in her handbag, in my costume I am including a handbag with a diagram of fission, a train ticket from Berlin to Groningen, the periodic table entry for Meitnerium, and a slide rule.

Happy Halloween!