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Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

Ruth Lewin Sime
Copyright Date: 1996
Pages: 540
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  • Book Info
    Lise Meitner
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91899-3
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. CHAPTER ONE Girlhood in Vienna
    (pp. 1-22)

    Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third child of Hedwig and Philipp Meitner. She would live in Vienna twenty-nine years, and then she would leave, not realizing how permanently, to make her professional home in Berlin. Part of her remained sentimentally, irreversibly Viennese. She gave in to it, laughing at herself each time she paid the special fee to maintain her Austrian residency. “Na ja,” she would shrug. “Foolishness costs money.” And later still, after she fled Germany for Stockholm, after every member of her family was gone from Vienna, after the community from which she came...

  5. CHAPTER TWO Beginnings in Berlin
    (pp. 23-45)

    Lise Meitner arrived in Berlin in September 1907. She expected to study there a few semesters; she would stay for more than thirty years.

    She chose Berlin because it was a magnet for the German-speaking world, because Boltzmann had spoken of it with regret, and above all because she knew the name of Max Planck and had seen him when he was invited to Vienna as a possible successor to Boltzmann. She had not heard of his quantum theory, although it had been published in 1900, and she knew almost nothing about Berlin, not even that women were still excluded...

  6. CHAPTER THREE The First World War
    (pp. 46-75)

    The Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes were inaugurated on 23 October 1912, a cold, wet day of considerable ceremony. The dignitaries came to the Chemistry Institute in special trains and carriages; His Excellency Emil Fischer spoke, the architect was praised, Kaiser Wilhelm II urged the assembled scientists to devise a fire-damp detector (which the two institute directors, Ernst Beckmann and Fritz Haber, soon did). During a tour of the building, the Kaiser glanced at Richard Willstätter’s chlorophyll crystals through a microscope and viewed Hahn and Meitner’s mesothorium glowing in the darkroom. At the Physical Chemistry Institute there was more, and finally all...

  7. CHAPTER FOUR Professor in the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut
    (pp. 76-108)

    Germany in 1919 was exceptionally bleak: defeated, divided, poor. By summer people knew they faced a fourth winter of hunger and cold. In Austria the situation was equally grim. “We are already freezing and going hungry,” Stefan Meyer wrote to Lise Meitner in October. “Milk and meat are unknown words, coal is nonexistent, wood insufficient and expensive.”¹ He and his wife left their children in the mountain village where in better times they had spent their summers. In the countryside some food was available, but Vienna was a city of starvation and death.

    For Germans there was the added fear...

  8. CHAPTER FIVE Experimental Nuclear Physics
    (pp. 109-133)

    In the 1920S it was possible, indeed essential, for a scientist to have a detailed overview of the field of nuclear physics. In this Lise Meitner was typical, closely following the experiments and theoretical work of others, writing review articles, speculating on the significance of new developments. Even at the height of her controversy with C. D. Ellis, she undertook a variety of other experiments, kept an eye out for new instruments, and altogether maintained the versatility needed in a field that tended to sprout surprises in unexpected places. In addition to beta and gamma spectra, she investigated long-range alpha...

  9. CHAPTER SIX Under the Third Reich
    (pp. 134-160)

    Lise Meitner began 1933, as always, with a new diary and some notes for the coming weeks. She would buyMax und Moritz, the tale of two rascals, for ten-year-old Hanno Hahn; in early February she would chair a meeting at which Werner Heisenberg and Max Born were scheduled to speak; Otto Hahn was leaving Berlin for America at the end of February. In the entry for New Year’s Day she wrote, “Plus ça change, plus c’est même chose”—The more things change, the more they stay the same.¹ We cannot know what Lise was thinking on that day. The...

  10. CHAPTER SEVEN Toward the Discovery of Nuclear Fission
    (pp. 161-183)

    The journey to the discovery of nuclear fission was a jumble of paths and blind alleys—“Wege und Irrwege,” Lise Meitner would later say—that misled physicists and chemists, experimentalists and theoreticians for years; when fission was recognized, finally, it was a sensational surprise that would change the history of its time. Had fission been born into a world at peace, its energy might first have been used to provide light and heat for people’s homes. Had fission been discovered in a world free of racial persecution, it might well have been the crowning achievement of Lise Meitner’s career.


  11. CHAPTER EIGHT Escape
    (pp. 184-209)

    On 12 March 1938, German troops poured over the border into Austria. Not a shot was fired. Delirious crowds greeted Hitler at every village along his route; in Linz that evening a crowd of one hundred thousand cheered wildly as he addressed them as “German racial comrades.” Spurred by the ecstatic welcome, Hitler proclaimed the totalAnschluss—annexation—of his native Austria, reducing once-mighty Österreich to a province of greater Germany. On 15 March, hundreds of thousands of Viennese, the largest crowd in Austrian history, thronged the Heldenplatz to welcome theirFührer. The police were already in brown shirts, and...

  12. CHAPTER NINE Exile in Stockholm
    (pp. 210-230)

    In the summer of 1938, only a few friends knew that Lise Meitner would not return to Germany. On 13 July, the day she took the train to Holland, Otto Hahn told the institute staff that she had left to visit relatives and even wrote in his own pocket calendar, “Lise goes to Vienna.”¹ A few days later the institute closed for the six-week summer vacation. In August, the Ministry of Education moved to dismiss her.

    Frau Professor Lise Meitner, formerly an Austrian national, is working as a guest [sic] at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Insofar as the...

  13. CHAPTER TEN The Discovery of Nuclear Fission
    (pp. 231-258)

    At the very moment that Enrico Fermi was speaking to a festive Nobel audience, the work he had begun in Rome was reaching a dramatic and unexpected climax in Berlin. Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann were racing to verify their earlier findings; by early December they thoroughly characterized what appeared to be three radium and three actinium species, determined their half-lives, and eliminated neighboring elements from consideration. As before, they assumed that activities following a barium carrier would be radium, and those following lanthanum and zirconium, respectively, would be actinium and thorium. Then, spurred by the objections Lise Meitner had...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Priorities
    (pp. 259-278)

    While Lise Meitner languished in Stockholm, physicists elsewhere were rushing ahead. The pace was hectic, the experiments often simple and quick. By the end of February 1939, dozens of physicists had confirmed the fission process. Otto Robert Frisch had been the first to detect the huge pulses of ionization from fission fragments, on 13 January, but hisNaturenote did not appear until mid-February, by which time Frédéric Joliot had published a similar experiment inComptes Rendus¹ and physicists all over the United States and Europe had made similar observations.² Joliot collected the fission fragments, as did Edwin McMillan in...

  16. CHAPTER TWELVE Again, World War
    (pp. 279-308)

    Although expected, the war came as a shock. Civilians were somber, displaying little of the reckless patriotism of 1914. “We lived through all this 25 years ago,” Edith Hahn told Lise. “We know what it means.”¹ Otto was gloomy, too. “One cannot tell how long this will last, and what will then become of Germany.”² Poland was crushed by the end of September, Britain and France having done nothing to help. Then the war stalled for months, a “phony war,” potential rather than actual.

    Meitner’s Berlin friends suffered from little at first except some consumer shortages and a feeling of...

  17. CHAPTER THIRTEEN War Against Memory
    (pp. 309-325)

    The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, and the numbing search for survivors began. Lise Meitner lost contact with Otto Hahn and Max von Laue when their region of southern Germany fell to the Allies; in her thoughts she composed letter after letter to them, worried as always that they would no longer understand each other.¹ She did not know if Max Planck and his wife, Marga, were alive, and despite appeals to the Russian legation in Stockholm, she could not find out if Paul Rosbaud and Elisabeth Schiemann had survived the fighting in Berlin. In late June,...

  18. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Suppressing the Past
    (pp. 326-346)

    Autumn is Nobel season in Sweden. Speculation begins in October, builds to a flurry of November announcements, and ends in a glittering royal ceremony each 10 December, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel. In 1945, rumors floated for weeks that Lise Meitner would share in one or another of the prizes. On 16 November, the Royal Academy of Sciences announced its Nobel decisions: the 1944 chemistry prize to Otto Hahn and the 1945 physics prize to Wolfgang Pauli.

    At Farm Hall the German scientists celebrated, raising their glasses to Otto Hahn.¹ But in Sweden, Lise’s friends were furious.²...

    (pp. 347-361)

    After Otto’s visit to Stockholm, Lise was at the end of her emotional and physical strength and spent the first two months of 1947 slowly recovering.¹ It was not a good time to be so exhausted, as she was just then in the process of moving out of Siegbahn’s institute and into her own laboratory at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). Gudmund Borelius had long wanted to bring nuclear physics, and Lise Meitner, to the KTH; after the atomic bomb, the political climate for such a proposal was very favorable. Concerned that Sweden had no capability in a field...

  20. CHAPTER SIXTEEN Final Journeys
    (pp. 362-380)

    When the war was over, and it became possible to think beyond the present once again, reminiscences and memoirs began to appear. Among the first was a notice written by Otto Hahn in 1947 for Stefan Meyer’s seventy-fifth birthday. “The events of the time did not allow his 70th birthday to be openly mentioned,” Hahn began. “At the time he was robbed of his position of director of the Radium Institute in Vienna.” Meyer had returned to Vienna and his former position; in 1948, he presented a seventieth-birthday gift to Hahn and Lise Meitner, his “Memories of the Early Days...

    (pp. 381-388)
    (pp. 389-392)
  23. NOTES
    (pp. 393-504)
    (pp. 505-512)
  25. INDEX
    (pp. 513-529)