Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Synopsis

Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a pioneer of nuclear physics and co-discoverer, with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, of nuclear fission. Braving the sexism of the scientific world, she joined the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and became a prominent member of the international physics community. Of Jewish origin, Meitner fled Nazi Germany for Stockholm in 1938 and later moved to Cambridge, England. Her career was shattered when she fled Germany, and her scientific reputation was damaged when Hahn took full credit--and the 1944 Nobel Prize--for the work they had done together on nuclear fission. Ruth Sime's absorbing book is the definitive biography of Lise Meitner, the story of a brilliant woman whose extraordinary life illustrates not only the dramatic scientific progress but also the injustice and destruction that have marked the twentieth century.

Excerpt

It seems to me that I have always known of Lise Meitner. As a child I must have seen her picture in Life, or in The New York Times, or perhaps in the Aufbau, the German refugees’ newspaper that my parents and grandmother often read. in America just after World War ii, Lise Meitner was a celebrity: the tiny woman who barely escaped the Nazis, the physicist responsible for nuclear fission, “the Jewish mother of the atomic bomb”— although she was a Jew by birth, not affiliation, and she had refused to work on the bomb. When I was six, the details didn’t matter. To me, she was a hero, like Eleanor Roosevelt.

I came back to Meitner thirty years later, in the 1970s, by way of a class I taught at California State University, Sacramento. Then, as now, I was on the chemistry faculty at Sacramento City College, a community college. At the university, I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire; under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist. When the women’s studies board asked me to put together a “Women in Science” course, I accepted right away, although at that moment I could think of only two: Marie Curie (of course) and Lise Meitner. So successful was feminist scholarship, however, that I was sure I would find more women in science and perhaps even begin to answer the question, Why so few?

As it turns out, they were not so few. Throughout history, everywhere, women have been active in science and mathematics and medicine. What these women shared, over the centuries, was the irregularity of their . . .

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