Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Ruth Lewin Sime

University of California Press 1996
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Born in 1878 in Vienna, Lise Meitner was, as a woman, unable even to complete high school. But the restrictions on female students were lifted in time for her to attend the University of Vienna, where she studied physics under Boltzmann and obtained her doctorate. In 1907 she moved to Berlin, where women might be allowed to audit courses if they could find a sympathetic lecturer. Despite obstacles such as these (and the interruption of World War I, in which she served as a front-line nurse), Meitner rose to the rank of full professor, the head of her own section at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute and a leading participant in the newly fledged discipline of nuclear physics.

The first third of Sime's biography closes with Meitner aged fifty four, happily established in Berlin. Things took a grimmer turn with Hitler's arrival in power in 1933. Many Jewish scientists (Einstein, Haber, Born) went into exile at once, but Meitner, protected by her friends and her lack of interest in politics (and more concerned about her work than anything else), stayed on until July 1938, until it was almost too late. Having fled to Sweden (where she was to live for the next twenty two years), Meitner found herself without the resources to continue her work, but until the outbreak of war she continued to collaborate with Hahn and Strassman. Sime makes a convincing case that she played a vital role in their discovery of fission late in 1938 and that she should, by rights, have shared the Nobel Prize Hahn received in 1944.

The responses of non-Jewish German physicists in Meitner's circle to the Nazi regime mirrored those of the broader population. Some took an active role in evicting Jews and pushing Nazi ideology in order to further their own careers, or, like Heisenberg, accepted what was happening uncritically. Many, though opposed to Nazism, did little more than protect the jobs of a few outstanding Jewish scientists (as Planck and Hahn protected Meitner) and compromised in order to maintain their own positions and some degree of scientific independence. Only a few saw beyond their personal concerns to the wider moral issues: Schrödinger left Germany in 1933 in disgust and Laue, Strassman, and Rosbaud assisted Jews throughout the war.

After the war many German physicists refused to accept any responsibility for what had happened, instead creating a myth that they had "refused" to build an atomic bomb for Hitler. With Hahn this also involved downplaying his collaboration with Meitner and her involvement in the discovery of fission; as his fame rose hers gradually faded, especially inside Germany. Despite this they remained close friends, and Meitner never seems to have protested, perhaps because she did not actually want be linked more closely with nuclear fission (she had refused to work on the Allied bomb effort during the war). Meitner died in 1968.

Sime's masterly biography will be a gold mine for historians of modern physics: Meitner was one of the central figures of nuclear physics for over a third of a century and counted among her friends, teachers, and colleagues most of the leading physicists of the day — people like Bohr and Chadwick as well as those already mentioned. Not only should it help to reestablish Meitner's reputation, but it presents a new perspective on German physics under Hitler. And, though in some ways Meitner's personal life lacked excitement (there is no indication that she had any non-platonic friendships, for example), there is plenty in Sime's biography to interest the general reader.

The details of the physics itself could have been better presented — Sime knows her subject backwards, but she presents the material in such a way that one needs a basic understanding of atomic physics and an acquaintance with its history to follow her account properly. It would have helped those without this background if a short summary of the physics involved and a chronology of the major discoveries had been provided as an appendix. The physics is covered in separate sections, however, so it can easily be skipped by those uninterested in it.

April 1996

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%T Lise Meitner
%S A Life in Physics
%A Sime, Ruth Lewin
%I University of California Press
%D 1996
%O hardcover, references, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0520089065
%P xiii,526pp,20pp b&w photos