Lise Meitner: Pioneer of the Atomic Age
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was the most outstanding female physicist of the interwar years, and was repeatedly denied a Nobel Prize in physics or chemistry, despite receiving at least forty-eight nominations. David Rennert and Tanja Traxler illuminate Meitner’s pioneering achievements as a female academic and co-discoverer of nuclear fission, and reconstruct compellingly her predicament as a ‘non-Aryan’ in 1930s Berlin and her last-minute escape into Swedish exile. The authors resist glossing over the difficult aspects of Meitner’s personality in this convincingly rounded portrait. The narrative vividly conveys the psychological complexity of Meitner and her colleagues and the ethical and practical dilemmas which they faced during the First World War and under the Nazi regime.
Lise Meitner was born into a liberal Jewish family in Vienna but in 1908 converted to Christianity. As only the second woman to have gained a doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna, in 1907 she obtained Max Planck’s permission to attend his lectures in Berlin and in 1912 became his ‘Assistant’. No woman had previously held this academic title at a Prussian university. From 1907 until 1938 Meitner collaborated with Otto Hahn on groundbreaking experimental research in radiochemistry and atomic physics. During the First World War she was given her own department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, and in 1919 became one of Germany’s first female professors. Only late in life, however, would Meitner overcome her own prejudices against female students and academics.
Rennert and Traxler trace absorbingly how Meitner and her colleagues became entangled in the First World War and in the political radicalisation of the interwar years. Fritz Haber, for example, developed poison gases for military purposes. His horrified wife committed suicide and the Allies wanted to try him as a war criminal, but he was still awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry and went on to develop the pesticide Zyklon B, ultimately resigning in protest at the Nazification of his institute. Meitner herself believed that Germanic racial superiority would overcome the degenerate French, and cherished hopes for German-Austrian unification. Her militaristic delusions were dispelled in 1915 when she witnessed combat injuries as a radiographic nurse. But her dream of German-Austrian unification survived the war until, with tragic irony, the Anschluss of 1938 made her a victim of the Germanic racism she had earlier espoused.
Meitner had been debarred from university teaching in 1933 but, rejecting friends’ advice, refused to accept the gravity of her situation and to abandon the professional and personal life she had built up over thirty years in Berlin. Finally, when it was almost too late, she managed to escape to Stockholm, where in December 1938 she and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch interpreted the latest experimental results from Berlin, thereby demonstrating the existence of nuclear fission.
Like Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, which addressed NASA’s marginalisation of female scientists, Lise Meitner could serve as the basis for a fascinating screenplay. The success of Morten Tyldum’s recent biopic of Alan Turing, The Imitation Game, demonstrates the current enthusiasm for human stories of scientists during the Second World War. Lise Meitner was published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Meitner’s death and is intended for a general audience. It is well researched, accessibly written, and reads very fluently in the manner of high-quality journalism. Rennert’s academic training in politics and history and Traxler’s knowledge of physics enable expert coverage of both Meitner’s scientific work and of the historical events which overtook her.