LISE MEITNER: A Life in Physics by Ruth Lewin Sime

LISE MEITNER: A Life in Physics

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On the eve of WW II the physicist Lise Meitner, then living in Sweden, realized that the puzzling results reported to her by her colleagues in Berlin meant they had split the atom. Now Sime (Chemistry/Sacramento City College) tells the absorbing story of her life. Born in 1878, Meitner was a native of Vienna, enjoying the support of a loving family as she pursued not only a university education but a career in physics. As an adult Meitner converted from Judaism to Protestantism. She moved to Berlin and began doing research with the sufferance of the director of the chemistry institute: She could enter only through a side door to a basement room and was forced to use the toilet facilities of a restaurant down the street. Here began her close but curiously formal partnership with chemist Otto Hahn, later joined by Fritz Strassmann. For the technically minded, Sime provides the details of the painstaking experiments in which radioactive elements were bombarded with neutrons. In time, Meitner would gain the position and salary commensurate with her brilliance, as well as the recognition of Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, Planck--anyone who was anybody in the pantheon of nuclear physics. But the '30s were to put an end to the collaboration, with the ever-increasing persecution of Jews (conversion did not count). Sime tells a suspenseful tale of Meitner's escape to Sweden, where she was given a place to work but essentially neither equipment nor staff to aid her. In the end it was Hahn and Strassmann who got the Nobel Prize--Hahn providing a revisionist history which does him no credit. Meitner remained loyal, if disenchanted, for the rest of her life. She spent her last years in England, dying at 90. Her epitaph, chosen by her beloved nephew Otto Frisch, was: ""Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity."" It is precisely that combination that Sime captures in this scrupulously researched biography.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0520208609
Page count: 540pp
Publisher: Univ. of California