Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

22
Physics and Friendships
Lise Meitner

Vienna

So far, we have met twenty-two of the great physicists. Have you wondered how entertaining it would be to spend a few hours with one of them in casual conversation? Might Newton be too neurotic to engage in a satisfying conversation? Might Einstein be too detached? Heisenberg too formal? Rutherford too loud? Faraday too busy? Maxwell too ironic? Boltzmann too distracted? Schrödinger too self-centered? About our next subject, Lise Meitner, you would have no such reservations. An evening spent with her would be pleasant and stimulating. She was good company.

Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878 into a middle-class, liberal, Jewish family, the third child of eight. Her father was a lawyer and a man of diverse interests. He and his wife Hedwig “made their home a gathering place for interesting people—legislators, writers, chess players, lawyers,” writes Ruth Sime, Meitner's principal biographer. “The children stayed up and listened. Years later when Meitner was asked about her childhood, she remembered most of all ‘the unusual goodness of my parents, and the extraordinarily stimulating intellectual atmosphere in which my brothers and sisters and I grew up.’”

The Meitner children had talent and they were rewarded. Lise's older sister Auguste (Gusti) was a musical prodigy; she became a composer and a concert pianist. Lise, too, loved music, but lacked the temperament of a performer. From as early an age as eight, she had a well-developed interest in mathematics and physics, and aimed for a university education. But in nineteenth-century Austria, a girl's public school education lasted to age fourteen, far short of the preparation needed for university entrance. Lise Meitner, like Marie Curie, was not stopped by deficient secondary education. With the help of a tutor and incessant hard work, she passed the Matura, the university entrance examination. The family joke was that Lise would fail the Matura if she did not have a book in her hand every minute of the day.

At the University of Vienna, Meitner had the extraordinary good fortune to

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Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xi
  • I - Historical Synopsis 3
  • 1 - How the Heavens Go 5
  • 2 - A Man Obsessed 18
  • II - Historical Synopsis 41
  • 3 - A Tale of Two Revolutions 43
  • 4 - On the Dark Side 51
  • 5 - A Holy Undertaking 59
  • 6 - Unities and a Unifier 71
  • 7 - The Scientist as Virtuoso 78
  • 8 - The Road to Entropy 93
  • 9 - The Greatest Simplicity 106
  • 10 - The Last Law 124
  • III - Historical Synopsis 135
  • 11 - A Force of Nature 137
  • 12 - The Scientist as Magician 154
  • IV - Historical Synopsis 177
  • 13 - Molecules and Entropy 179
  • V - Historical Synopsis 201
  • 14 - Adventure in Thought 203
  • VI - Historical Synopsis 229
  • 15 - Reluctant Revolutionary 231
  • 16 - Science by Conversation 242
  • 17 - The Scientist as Critic 256
  • 18 - Matrix Mechanics 263
  • 19 - Wave Mechanics 275
  • VII - Historical Synopsis 293
  • 20 - Opening Doors 295
  • 21 - On the Crest of a Wave 308
  • 22 - Physics and Friendships 330
  • 23 - Complete Physicist 344
  • VIII - Historical Synopsis 363
  • 24 - Iγ·∂ψ = Mψ 365
  • 25 - What Do You Care? 376
  • 26 - Telling the Tale of the Quarks 403
  • IX - Historical Synopsis 421
  • 27 - Beyond the Galaxy 423
  • 28 - Ideal Scholar 438
  • 29 - Affliction, Fame, and Fortune 452
  • Chronology of the Main Events 464
  • Glossary 469
  • Invitation to More Reading 478
  • Index 485
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