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Genius and wisdom

· ​Lise Meitner ·

“To hear them talk anyone would think that I escaped from Germany with the atomic bomb in my handbag”, Lise Meitner said of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer’s insistence that she collaborate in the making of a film on her life, “I would have preferred to walk naked on Broadway”.

Hers was a complicated, sometimes adventurous, story of the utmost importance. This elderly Viennese lady with a vague shortsighted gaze behind her glasses was a genius in physics who, exiled to Sweden for being Jewish, discovered the mechanism of nuclear fission, that is to say the key to building the atomic bomb. In the post-war years she came to be called “Mother of the bomb”. Hollywood was obviously interested in her.

Lise Meitner was born on 7 November 1878 to a cultured and well-to-do Jewish family with profound liberal convictions; she loved music and nature, as well as mathematics, physics and chemistry. She could play the piano and walk in the woods; but she could not have access to scientific training because she was a woman and at that time in imperial Austria women were barred from advanced studies.

And yet she succeeded: her family paid for her to have private lessons, she was accepted to sit in on some (rare) courses, and the end of the century brought the beginning of the protests against discrimination by feminist associations. On 1 February 1906 she obtained a doctorate in physics in Vienna. However she had no professional openings. She offered to work for Marie Curie but there were no vacancies in her laboratory. While she taught without much interest in a girl’s school, she was still seeking, oscillating between the awareness of her own worth, insecurities, hesitation in putting herself forward and embarrassment at being dependent on her family.

Until, strong with three research projects carried out on her own, she presented herself to Max Planck in Berlin who accepted her as a student and later as an assistant. But a semi-apartheid awaited her: she had to use a back entrance, if she needed the lavatory she had to use one in a restaurant across the road, her colleagues were all unwilling to share the laboratory with a woman. An exception was the young and brilliant Otto Hahn who accepted her at the Chemistry Institute, enrolling her as “an unpaid guest”: they were to work together for 31 years. They made a strange team, she forced to flee with 10 marks in her pocket, he employed in the laboratories of the Third Reich.

Over the course of the years they obtained both fame and results in a field packed with excellent minds, particle physics. It was often Lise who made a breakthrough. The crucial breakthrough occurred on the eve of the war, while the greatest physicists were working to identify the new element that they were convinced must be formed by the bombardment of uranium. They did not find it yet went on seeking for it. An exile, far from Hahn, Lise decided instead that if the expectable continued to lead nowhere it was necessary to reconsider the impossible. And this sublime detective intuited that it is the nucleus of uranium itself that splits in the process which she was to call fission, from which is released a quantity of energy far greater than that liberated by mere radioactivity. She wrote this in a letter to the journal Nature, a scientific but not specialist publication, breaking – an unheard of event – with the practice of caution and secrecy which was the rule in the professional community. Once the discovery had been made public, others too realized the frightful destructivity of a nuclear chain reaction.

However Hitler loomed on the horizon and everyone, even the pacificist Einstein, was in favour of building a weapon based on that principle. Lise alone refused to participate; on the contrary, she expressed the hope that her colleagues would fail; and she gave up her studies on fission.

When in July 1945 the men of the Manhattan project were celebrating the first experimental explosion and dancing with joy, the first wail of the long-nurtured bomb-child, its mother was absent. She was alone in Sweden, asking herself why she should go ahead with it and thinking of the millions of people for whom the question was cut short by a horrible death – gas, hunger, tortures and epidemics.

Lise was to be excluded from the most important recognition, starting with the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Otto Hahn. What with the Cold War and the scientists’ delirium of omnipotence, it was not the time to understand that her repudiation was as important as her discovery, and perhaps more difficult. One of the sorcerer’s apprentices was to recognize this years later: even when the enterprise had lost its urgency – Germany was certainly very far from obtaining the bomb, and Japan brought to its knees – the excitement remained such that no one gave even a passing thought to the idea of suspending, delaying and redeveloping, because, “you stop thinking, you simply stop”. Lise didn’t.

After decades of viritual oblivion, more is now known of her history, thanks to documentaries, a film, plays and books including texts for children. And rightly so. Much is said about being aware of limits but long before this theory began to be held Lise Meitner had lived it, practised it and thrown it in the world’s face. And she had paid the price for it.

Yet during these long decades of virtual oblivion the only person who honoured her was Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer, the renowned scholar and popularizer, the man who was worried when he saw that “Science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”. 

Anna Bravo




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 29, 2020