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Chemical elements

February 24, 2014

What is the only element named for a woman?

 Meitnerium, Element 109


I am plagiarizing from Wikipedia with omissions and slight editing.

Lise Meitner, (7 November 1878 – 27 October 1968) was an Austrian, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics.  Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner is often mentioned as one of the most glaring examples of women’s scientific achievement overlooked by the Nobel committee.   She was born Jewish but converted to Christianity at age 30.


Women were not allowed to attend institutions of higher education in those days, but thanks to support from her parents, she was able to obtain private higher education. Inspired by her teacher, physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, Meitner studied physics and became the second woman to obtain a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna in 1905.

Encouraged by her father and backed by his financial support, she went to Berlin. Max Planck allowed her to attend his lectures, an unusual gesture by Planck, who until then had rejected any women wanting to attend his lectures. After one year, Meitner became Planck’s assistant. During the first years she worked together with chemist Otto Hahn and discovered with him several new isotopes. In 1909 she presented two papers on beta-radiation.

In the first part of World War I, she served as a nurse handling X-ray equipment. She returned to Berlin and her research in 1916, but not without inner struggle. She felt in a way ashamed of wanting to continue her research efforts when thinking about the pain and suffering of the victims of war and their medical and emotional needs.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Meitner stayed too long in Germany.  The Anschluss removed the protection of her Austrian citizenship.  In July 1938, Meitner escaped to the Netherlands. She was forced to travel under cover to the Dutch border.  She reached safety without her possessions. Meitner later said that she left Germany forever with 10 marks in her purse. Before she left, Otto Hahn had given her a diamond  ring he had inherited from his mother: this was to be used to bribe the frontier guards if required. It was not required, and Meitner’s nephew’s wife later wore it.

She was involved in the pursuit of discovering new elements, which led to nuclear fission. She and her nephew Otto Frisch first explained how uranium hit by a neutron could split into barium and krypton.  She was the first to understand that Einstein’s equation   E = mc2 explained the enormous release of energy.  She also realized the possibility of a chain reaction leading to the release of enormous energy.  Many physicists then understood that a bomb could likely be produced this way and the whole area of research suddenly became secret.

She lived in Great Britain towards the end of her life and received many honors particularly in the United Sates of America.


Element 114.

In 1949 at age 13 I went with my family on a trip throughout the western United States visiting most of the National Parks.  We camped almost every night and this was long before organized campgrounds were established.

I was already very interested in chemistry, so I set myself the task of learning to recite the list of chemical elements—sort of like learning the alphabet.  Between evening chores and going to bed I had learned them all about halfway through the trip.  It was a little easier then because I believe only 97 elements were known.

I have become rusty in my old age.  Cardiac rehab is giving me time to memorize the list again along with trying to re-learn as much Mandarin (reading, writing and speaking) as possible.

The only named element which is new to me is Flerovium (114).  The story of its name is amusing.  It was discovered in a laboratory in Dubna named for Georgy Flerov and those who discovered it quite naturally wanted to name it for him.  However the IUPAC named it for the laboratory instead.  Most likely this is due to the fact that Flerov wrote Stalin in 1942 noting that a sudden silence had fallen over research on nuclear fission around the world.  He deduced correctly that this meant that several countries were trying to build an atomic bomb.


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  1. Mrs.Vindhya Kalia permalink

    Thanks for the interesting message. The remarkable Dr. Meitner showed that as far as intelligence women can be brainy also despite obstacles, especially in those days. It was too bad that she did not share the Nobel Prize with her colleague, but recognition came later on.
    I just received the Oregon Spring issue. I moved to Eugene in 2010 after some years in India. When I read proposal about an arboretum with exotic flora,I wrote you an email agreeing because I associated it with my numerous visits to the SF Golden Gate Park. When I started reading about objections, my feelings were mixed. I can imagine how you felt when your important proposal was rejected, but it may be some consolation to mention we are entering the Anthropocene era that–as you may know–was introduced by Paul Crutzen, Dutch chemist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1995 for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds. Human are helping nature with mischief in the planet. As an example, the disappearance of the passenger pigeon after billions were flying worldwide. This year will be the centenary of the death of Martha, the last one.
    I´m impressed…relearning the monosyllabic Mandarin…! Without practice, a language gets forgotten. By experience, my German is almost gone and the limited Hindi I learned while living in India for some years is fast disappearing. Best wishes, Vindhya

    • Thanks for your kind remarks. I am finding it hard to re-learn Mandarin. I always had trouble with the four tones, and I still do. Also my hand writing is poor in any language and one has to write the strokes in a character in a particular order and each one in a correct direction. This is often not given in sources for the character. My wife and I will be making our third 10-day tour to China this summer. I hope to have some ability in Mandarin by then, as I did 50 years ago. Thanks again.

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