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Lise Meitner Explained Fission

In response to:

The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb from the December 22, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

I’m sitting at my morning breakfast reading my latest edition of your fine publication when I came across Mr. Thomas Powers’s article “The Private Heisenberg and the Absent Bomb” [NYR, December 22, 2016].

Mr. Powers states in his article that it was Otto Hahn who was “the first to explain the fission process that made bombs possible.”

From my reading of history and my own work and teaching in nuclear physics, the person who actually was the first to understand Hahn’s results as nuclear fission was Professor Lise Meitner. (See Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, by Ruth Lewin Sime, University of California Press, 1996.)

Normally I would not take the time to quibble over what might be seen as a triviality, but the slight to Professor Meitner is one that has been going on for decades, and to see it in a publication as progressive as yours upsets the digestion of my oatmeal, among other things. (Not to mention that it is coming from a historian of nuclear science!)

Hahn had conducted the experiments sure enough, but it took a woman (!) to figure out what the results meant. Hahn thought it was radioactive decay.

Jon Nadler
Mount Zion, Illinois

Thomas Powers replies:

Dr. Nadler is of course right; Lise Meitner deserved more credit than she got for the discovery of fission. I might have better said that Otto Hahn was “the first to explain to the world the fission process that made bombs possible.”