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“Just as the laws of nature work consistently and without exception, in great things as in small, so too people cannot live together without equal justice for all.” – Max Planck
She lived through some intriguing times. She was informed by an inquisitiveness that was more a hallmark than a habit. She was invested with a degree of knowledge that generated incandescent output and outcomes. Yet she remains incognito. Affably referred to as “our own, Marie Curie” by the indomitable Einstein – during the course of a brief Physics experiment which the duo conducted in Berlin – the late Austrian-Swedish physicist Lise Meitner will go down in the annals of scientific and socio-political history as the unsung genius who was done in by both the times she inhabited, and the telling mores that were the travails of such times.
Ruth Lewin Sime in an authoritative, engaging and definitive biography highlights the stupendous rise and unfortunate relegation of one of most influential physicists of our time. Taught by the enthusiastic theoretical physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, Lise Meitner made her way to the then Mecca of Physics, Berlin. Intending to spend time honing her intellectual prowess over a few semesters, Meitner spent the thirty one years in Berlin, before fleeing to Sweden just before the onset of the bloody Second World War.
Meitner’s love for Science in general and Physics in particular was enhanced immeasurably when she met Max Planck in Berlin. Admiring the phenomenal theoretical physicist with reverence more than respect and regard, Meitner was bowled over by the man’s obsession towards his subject. After Boltzmann, it was only Planck who dived into his chosen sphere of expertise with a vengeance. “Again and again I saw with admiration that he never did or avoided doing something that might have been useful or damaging to himself. When he perceived something to be right, he carried it out, without regard for his own person.” But the quality that endeared Planck the most to Meitner was his unflinching belief that Physics was inseparable from ethical values, because nothing less than complete honesty suffices to understand external reality. Lise along with other advanced students and physics assistants were regularly invited to his home on Wangenheimstrasse.
Working assiduously with her fellow collaborator of more than three decades, Otto Hahn – a German chemist and a trail blazer in the fields of radioactivity and radio chemistry – Meitner ascended the pinnacle of her formidable intellectual prowess, when she devised a brilliant method that involved the employ of neutrons to bombard Uranium. Termed “the liquid droplet model”, this process led to the splitting of the Uranium nucleus and a consequent emission of a humongous amount of energy. Lise Meitner, with this seminal discovery, became the first ever Physicist to realise the potential of atomic fission. This research also earned her the appellation, “mother of the atomic bomb”.
Superfluous epithets and coy monikers, however, fail miserably in doing justice to the tribulations which this wonderful woman had to face at every stage of her academic and professional progress. She had to endure ludicrous personal prejudices and overpower stentorian male patriarchy. In one striking example, the Nobel laureate Emil Fischer declined to let her work in his storied lab because he thought women’s long hair was a fire hazard (rich, coming from a man who had a veritable bush for a beard). But Lise Meitner carried on undeterred in her pursuit, undaunted in her focus, and unrelenting in her ambition. She realised quite early in her professional career that storming this male bastion was not a feasible option. Instead she decided to dismantle it, brick by stubborn brick. Before her arrival in Berlin, she had after all compressed eight years of schooling in just two years since an ambivalent and antediluvian Viennese establishment decided to allow entry into the hallowed portals of its educational institutions to women only as an afterthought. Meitner not only earned her doctoral degree in 1905, but also became only the second woman ever to obtain a doctorate in physics.
She was very meticulous in ensuring that every research paper which she and Hahn co-authored had Hahn’s name appearing first (even though in some cases the research was her sole preserve). She also engaged some of the titans in the world of Physics, colossuses of the likes of Max Planck, Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and James Chadwick etc in engaging deliberations, thereby winning them over. The sordid citadel creaked, complained and ultimately, collapsed, but not before dealing one final insidious hand. Despite being nominated for the Nobel Prize in Physics a whopping 29 times, and for Chemistry another 19 times, (earliest being 1924 and the latest 1965) Lise Meitner, was repeatedly overlooked whereas her co-collaborator Otto Hahn bagged the prestigious award for the very research to which Meitner rendered yeoman contribution.
After she fled Berlin seeking the refuge of Sweden, a systematic attempt was made by the Nazis to just eviscerate all her contribution in the domain of theoretical physics. Her research papers were withheld and even her pension was stopped. While Hitler’s goons were busy erasing Lise Meitner from the consciousness of the German public, her trusted collaborator and ‘brother in research’ Otto Hahn played his own opportunistic card by trumpeting the discovery of atomic fission as a purely a feat of chemistry, thereby expunging the invaluable contribution of both Physics and Physicist.
“During his life he was made an honorary member of nearly every scientific society on earth and awarded countless honorary doctorates, medals, keys to cities, and honorary citizenships; his face was on a stamp and his name was on buildings, institutes, schools, libraries, streets, a nuclear-powered ship, a prestigious prize, and an unknown number of baby boys. (And posthumously: trains, a moon crater, coins, an element, an Antarctic island, plaques of the “Washington-slept-here” type, brigades, bridges, and plazas.”
In a feeble attempt at ‘atonement’, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Meitner its prestigious Enrico Fermi Award in 1966.
If there needs to be leveled one complaint against an otherwise wonderful book, it is the degree of space and coverage devoted to describing esoteric Physics and Chemistry experiments in great depth. Complex, contorted and convoluted these passages are absolutely incomprehensible to a lay person who has no idea about the intricacies of either Physics or Chemistry.