Scientist of the Day - Otto Frisch
Otto Frisch, an Austrian physicist, was born Oct. 1, 1904. If you do the New York Times Crossword, you may recall the puzzle of this past Sep. 20, when the clue for 1 Down was: “Otto who worked on the Manhattan Project.” The answer was Frisch (see first image above). As a Jew, Frisch fled Germany during the rise of Hitler, and he was working in Copenhagen, at the Bohr Institute, when Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann discovered fission at their lab in Berlin in December, 1938. Or rather, they discovered that when they bombarded uranium with neutrons, they produced barium as a byproduct. They had no idea what was going on. It was Frisch, working with his aunt Lise Meitner, who identified what had happened as the fission of uranium, and who in fact coined the very word "fission." Meitner had worked with Hahn for years (second image), and Frisch was visiting his aunt in Sweden at Christmas when she got a letter from Hahn, describing the experiment (third image) and his mystification at the results. Walking in the snow that fateful day, Meitner and Frisch figured out that the uranium atom must have split into two by-products, one of which was barium. Frisch, the next year, determined that a bomb using uranium 235, the scarce isotope of uranium, was a real possibility. His report, written with Rudolf Peierls, led to the formation of the Maud Committee in Great Britain, which in turn led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project in 1942 in the United States. Frisch worked at Los Alamos from 1943 to 1945, which was a pretty good trick, since he was in effect an enemy alien. He had to be granted British citizenship to do so. Frisch described all these happenings in a charming autobiography, full of colorful stories, with the equally charming title: What Little I Remember (1979; fourth image). Neither Frisch nor Meitner shared in the Nobel Prize awarded to Otto Hahn in 1944 for the discovery of nuclear fission.
Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to email@example.com.