Physics and Friendships
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