Internal and External Conditions for the Discovery of Nuclear Fission by the Berlin Team

  • Fritz Krafft
Part of the The University of Western Ontario Series in Philosophy of Science book series (WONS, volume 22)


My subject concerns the constellation of conditions which led to the discovery of nuclear fission by Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Strassmann.1 It is on purpose that I mention all three names of the Berlin team and that I order them alphabetically, in spite of the fact that today Hahn is usually credited with the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei. Stressing Hahn’s name, however, ignores the fact that Hahn himself called Fritz Strassmann a codiscoverer. It is absolutely wrong to attribute Hahn’s attitude to modesty and to regard that as the motive that caused him to let his young assistant share his fame. I am much more convinced that it was the cooperationof all three scientists, including Lise Meitner, which gave rise to the discovery — at least in the way that it was done, with extremely weak radioactive samples, and as early as it was done.


External Condition Nuclear Fission Barium Chloride Alpha Decay Beta Emitter 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 4.
    Meitner’s letter to Max von Laue, Sept. 4, 1941, quoted in K. E. Boeters and J. Lemmerich (eds.), Geddähtnisausstellung zum 100. Geburtstag von Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn, Max von Laue, Lise Meitner in der Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin, vom 1. März — 12. April 1979( Bad Honnef: Physik Kongress-Ausstellungs- und Verwaltungsgesellschaft, 1979 ), p. 116Google Scholar
  2. L. Meitner, “Wege und Irrwege zur Kern-energie,” Naturw. Rund., 16 (1963), 167–169.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    O. R. Frisch, “Lise Meitner, 1878–1968, Elected For. Mem. R. S. 1955,”Biogr. Mem. FRS, 6(1970), 405–420CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. F. Krafft, “Lise Meitner und ihre Zeit — Zum hundertsten Geburtstag der bedeutenden Naturwissenschaftlerin,” Angew. Chem., 90(1978), 876–892CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. English version Angew. Chem., International Edition in English, 17(1978), 826–842; and Krafft, Im Schatten der Sensation, Chapter 2 (here also the more recent literature is quoted).Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    F. Strassmann, Kernspaltung — Berlin, Dezember 1938(Mainz: privately printed, 1978), esp. pp. 18–20, 23, quoted also in Krafft, Im Schatten der Sensation, pp. 203–211.Google Scholar
  7. 11.
    See now O. R. Frisch, What Little I Remember( London: Cambridge University Press, 1979 ).Google Scholar
  8. 14.
    O. Hahn and F. Strassmann, “Über den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle,” Naturwissenschaften, 27(1939), 11–15 (received Dec. 22, 1938, published Jan. 6, 1939 ).Google Scholar
  9. 23.
    W. Heisenberg, “Gedenkworte für Otto Hahn und Lise Meitner”, Orden pour le mérite fur Wissenschaften und Künste: Reden und Gedenkworte, 9(1968/69), 111–119 (pp. 113 f.).Google Scholar
  10. 28.
    L. Meitner, “Looking Back,” Bull. Atom. Sci., 20/No. 10 (Nov. 1964), 2–7 (p. 4 ).Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    Krafft, “Lise Meitner,” pp. 877 f., 881 (English version, pp. 827 f., 830 f.).Google Scholar
  12. 35.
    E. Fermi, “Possible Production of Elements of Atomic Number Higher than 92,” Nature, 133(1934), 898 f. (reprinted in Wohlfarth, 40 Jahre Kernspaltung, pp. 55–58)Google Scholar
  13. E. Fermo, E. Amaldi, O. d’Agostino, F. Rasetti, and E. Segrè, “Artificial Radioactivity Produced by Neutron Bombardement,” Proc. Roy. Soc., 146(1934), 483–500.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. 36.
    J. W. van Spronsen, The Periodic System of Chemical Elements: A History of the First Hundred Years (Amsterdam/London/New York: Elsevier, 1969), p. 160 (Fig. 59).Google Scholar
  15. 39.
    C. F. von Weizsäcker, “Neuere Modellvorstellungen über den Bau der Atomkerne,” Naturwissenschaften, 26(1938), 209–217 and 225–230 (pp. 229 f.).Google Scholar
  16. 40.
    I. Noddack, “Uber das Element 93,” Angew. Chem., 47(1934), 653 f., reprinted in Wohlfarth, 40 Jahre Kernspaltung, pp. 60–64.Google Scholar
  17. 43.
    O. Hahn and L. Meitner, “Die künstliche Umwandlung des Thorium durch Neutronen: Bildung der bischer fehlenden radioaktiven 4n + 1-Reihe,” Naturwissenschaften, 23(1935), 320 f.Google Scholar
  18. 44.
    O. Hahn and L. Meitner (with experimental collaboration of F. Strassmann), “Künstliche radioaktive Atomarten aus Uran und Thor,” Angew. Chem., 49(1936), 127 f.Google Scholar
  19. 48.
    G. von Droste, “Uber Versuche eines Nachweises von a-Strahlen während der Be- strahlung von Thorium und Uran mit Radium+Beryllium-Neutronen,” Z. Phys., 110(1938), 84–94 (received May 25, 1938 ).Google Scholar
  20. 49.
    O. Hahn and F. Strassmann, “Nachweis der Entstehung aktiver Bariumisotope aus Uran und Thorium durch Neutronenbestrahlung; Nachweis weiterer aktiver Bruch-stücke bei der Uranspaltung,” Naturwissenschaften$127 (1939), 89–95 (p. 93) (communicated Jan. 28, 1939 ).Google Scholar
  21. 50.
    L. Meitner, F. Strassmann, and O. Hahn, “Künstliche Umwandlungsprozesse bei Bestrahlung des Thoriums mit Neutronen; Auftreten isomerer Reihen durch Abspaltung von α-Strahlen,” Z. Phys., 109(1938), 538–552 (received May 16, 1938 ).Google Scholar
  22. 51.
    Hahn, Meitner, and Strassmann, “Ein neues langlebiges Umwandlungsprodukt,” communicated to NaturwissenschaftenJuly 12, 1938, two days before Meitner left Germany.Google Scholar
  23. 52.
    I. Curie and P. Savitch, “Sur les radioéléments formés dans l’uranium irradié par les neutrons,” J. Phys. Radium, 8(1937), 385–387.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 53.
    I. Curie and P. Savitch, “Sur la radioélément de période 3,5 heures formé dans l’uranium irradié par les neutrons,” Compt. Rend., 206(1938), 906–908.Google Scholar
  25. Meitner’s letter to Hahn of Jan. 24, 1957, quoted in Krafft, Im Schatten der Sensation, p. 206, n. 9. Concerning the letter of Meitner and Hahn to I. Curie of Jan. 20, 1938, see the contribution of Spencer Weart in this volume.Google Scholar
  26. 55.
    I. Curie and P. Savitch, “Sur les radioéléments formé dans l’uranium irradié par les neutrons, II,” J. Phys. Radium, 9(1938), 355–359 (p. 356: “Dans l’ensemble, les propriétés de R 3,5 h sont celles du lanthane, dont il semble jusqu’ici qu’on ne puisse le séparer par fractionnement”).Google Scholar
  27. 64.
    O. Hahn and F. Strassmann, “Uber die Entstehung von Radiumisotopen aus Uran durch Bestrahlen mit schnellen und verlangsamten Neutronen,” Naturwissenschaften, 26(1938), 755 f. (received Nov. 8, 1938, published Nov. 18, 1938); for the following four isomeric series see the paper of Dec. 22, 1938 (n. 78 below).Google Scholar
  28. 81.
    O. R. Frisch’s letter to Hahn, Jan. 4, 1939 (from Copenhagen) (Archives of the Max Planck Society, Berlin), edited in Krafft, Im Schatten-der Sensation, pp. 271 f.Google Scholar
  29. 83.
    Notebook “Chemie III” (see n. 19 above), fols. 18vf., printed in facsimile by Krafft, Im Schatten der Sensation, p. 284, Fig. 30 The measurements began on the evening of Jan. 24,1939.Google Scholar
  30. 84.
    O. Hahn and F. Strassmann, “Nachweis der Entstehung aktiver Bariumisotope aus Uran und Thorium durch Neutronenbestrahlung; Nachweis weiterer aktiver Bruchstucke bei der Uranspaltung,” Naturwissenschaften, 27(1939), 89–95 (communicated Jan. 28, 1939, published Feb. 10, 1939), reprinted in Wohlfarth, 40 Jahre Kernspaltung, pp. 78–96, and in Krafft, Im Schatten der Sensation, 287–293 (facsimile).Google Scholar
  31. 85.
    N. Bohr, “Resonance in Uranium and Thorium Disintegrations and the Phenomenon of Nuclear Fission,” Phys. Rev., 55(1939), 418 f. (communicated Feb. 7, 1939, published mid-March, 1939); then N. Bohr and J. A. Wheeler, “The Mechanism of Fission,” ibid., 56, 426–450 (communicated June 28, 1939, published Sept. 1, 1939). The second paper is reprinted in Wohlfarth, 40 Jahre Kernspaltung, pp. 141–190.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company 1983

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fritz Krafft
    • 1
  1. 1.Johannes Gutenberg-Universität MainzGermany

Personalised recommendations