The mother of nuclear fission was a key player in shaping America’s classified world
Sometimes we come across stories that are untold or so little known that they are an injustice to those involved. This is the case of Lisa Meitner.
Who is Lisa Meitner?
Meitner, born in the late 1870s in Austria, studied physics, earned her doctorate, and then moved to Berlin. In Berlin, she worked for over thirty years for a chemist named Otto Hahn, studying radioactivity. Meitner was brilliant, discovering the element protactinium and the Auger effect – a process where energy could be transferred from one electron to another without radiation, which led to important medical advances. Germany annexed Austria in 1938, so Meitner was forced to leave for Sweden. His work with Hahn continued somewhat secretly and resulted in the process known as nuclear fission.
When Meitner released the theory of nuclear fission to the scientific world, scientists such as Albert Einstein issued a warning letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, noting that this new process, when combined with the right elements , could lead to a devastating weapon of destruction used by nations opposed to the United States. This led to a multinational US-led effort called the Manhattan Project, a research and development effort to build the first nuclear weapons. As for Meitner, who despised Nazi Germany and the fact that Hahn pledged his loyalty to her, she refused to participate in the Manhattan Project, because her work focused on medicine and not on war.
According to his biography published in 1996, his letter to Hahn began with the following:
You all worked for Nazi Germany. And you haven’t even tried passive resistance. Certainly, to absolve your conscience, you helped an oppressed person here and there, but millions of innocent human beings were murdered and there was no protest.
Meitner, while receiving accolades and credits from time to time, didn’t really gain recognition until some 20 years later, when she received several distinguished achievement awards. In 1997, nearly 30 years after his death, element 109 was renamed meitnerium.
The first steps of a security clearance
What does all this have to do with most of you? Through Meitner’s work, the Manhattan Project was created. With the project came the first truly large-scale use of clearance designators. The U.S. military was tasked with project security, considered the best agency to handle the bare necessities measured.
Since the project had so many different participants from all professions and all parts of the world, badges were distributed with an image and a color code. Yellow meant you could enter the technical areas of the lab, but could not receive any classified information – like the guards. Blue was used for people who needed classified information but not technical information – clerks and warehouse workers. Red was for people who could get technical information in a highly compartmentalized state. White was for those who could know everything – everything that needed to be done in Los Alamos.
In fact, some of the agents spying on the project had white-colored badges, which was a huge point of investigation for years to come. After the war ended, the project and its aftermath passed to the Atomic Energy Commission, which spurred modern security clearance laws and policies that influence standards today. So Lisa Meitner was not only a magnificent scientist, who made great discoveries that impacted world history, she was also indirectly responsible for the importance of the classified world we live in today. today.