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A Troubled Life in Science.

In the amazing years of the early nuclear age, scientific pioneers like Lise Meitner gradually unlocked the secret of existence at the most profound physical level -- that of the atom. Given the obstacles, their achievement remain astonishing. But for Meitner, there were additional barriers. As a woman in the early twentieth century, she first had to struggle simply to be taken seriously as a scientist; later, when categorized as a "non-Aryan," she would become keenly aware that as humanity drew nearer to an understanding of the building blocks of our world, we were ever more imperilled by our own capacity for total destruction.

LISE MEITNER AND THE DAWN OF THE NUCLEAR AGE: Patricia Rife (Boston: Birkhauser, 1999).

LISE MEITNER: A LIFE IN PHYSICS: Ruth Lewin Sime (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

What was once called "the heroic age" of atomic physics began in 1896 when the French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered radioactivity. It can be said to have come to an end in December 1938 with the discovery of nuclear fission. Lise Meitner's life spanned both these events and more. She was born in Vienna in 1878, the third of the eight children of Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. She early evinced an interest in mathematics and science and, after training as a school teacher, she entered the University of Vienna. It was 1901; she was 23, and the first woman in the history of the university to attend classes in physics. And she was fortunate too, for she was taught by Ludwig Boltzmann, a riveting teacher. Later in life she would describe his lectures as "the most beautiful and stimulating that I have ever heard." He was unusual also in that he accepted women students as a matter of course at a time when there was much opposition to it. By the summer of 1906 she had her doctorate, but there was no position open to her. She returned to teaching, but continued to do (unpaid) research by night. By 1907, however, despairing of her prospects if she were to stay in Vienna, she persuaded her parents to subsidize her "for a few terms" at the University of Berlin.

She arrived there in September 1907 and stayed for 30 years. It was an inspired move. In the course of her professional career there she came to know, and to move freely among, the great and the good: Max Planck, Niels Bohr and many others. She once worked briefly on a problem with Einstein. She became known by physicists everywhere as an outstanding experimentalist and an able theorist. She became (in the words of one of her former assistants, the biochemist Max Perutz) "one of the stars in Berlin's galaxy of great physicists." Between 1924 and 1938, when she was forced into exile in Sweden because of her Jewish ancestry, she was nominated for a Nobel Prize seven times.

Her stated purpose in moving to Berlin in 1907 was to attend Max Planck's lectures; but she was soon looking around for an opportunity to do some experimental work. It was at this point that she met Otto Hahn. Though they were the same age, he was already an established researcher in radioactivity with several successes to his credit. According to Sime, they were delighted with each other from the start and made plans to work together at once. The Institute of Chemistry in which Hahn was working was, however, off-limits to women, so Meitner was relegated to a basement room which was previously used as a carpenter's shop. This relationship between a physical chemist and a physicist was lasting, in later years sometimes troubled, but highly successful. Professionally it was formal. As Hahn wrote in his autobiography sixty years later: "For many years I never had a meal with Lise Meitner except on formal occasions. Nor did we ever go for a walk together.... Apart from the physics colloquia that we attended, we met only in the carpenters shop." When Hahn married, Meitner was welcomed into the family, but they continued for many years to address each other in their letters as "Dear Herr Hahn" and "Dear Fraulein Meitner."

By 1912 Meitner had published some twenty papers and had established herself as a reputable scientist; yet she still lacked a position and was still unpaid. It was at this point that Planck appointed her his Assistent, giving her at last a foot on the academic ladder and a modest stipend. In return she was to mark his students' papers. The following year she was made a scientific associate, the same rank as that held by Hahn; and in the spring of 1914 the offer of a post at the University of Prague helped to have her Berlin salary doubled. The Institute's director, who had once banned her from the premises, had accepted that her value as a scientist overcame the disadvantage of her being a woman.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914 Hahn, a reservist, was called up, leaving Meitner to continue their work alone. The following July she returned to Vienna and volunteered for service with the Austrian army as an x-ray technician. Returning exhausted in October 1916 she resumed her work and at the beginning of 1917 was given her own laboratory. She was now a professor, in her late thirties - not at all an unusually advanced age for such a position. She was no longer in Hahn's shadow. They would continue to assist one another, but as equals. As Sime puts it: "For a physicist, radioactivity had reached a certain completeness ... [it] was evolving into nuclear physics.... Her most important years of research lay just ahead." The atom, which Ernst Mach had famously pronounced to be a myth, was about to yield its secrets. The physicist Victor Weisskopf wrote in his memoirs that he could think of no time in the history of science "when so much was made so clear by so few in so short a time."

ON 30 January 1933 Hitler was sworn in as the Chancellor of the German Reich, and on 7 April the cynically named Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service was enacted. The purge of Jewish scientists from their universities was begun. Meitner's position was unclear. She was an Austrian citizen; she had done war service for a German ally; and she worked in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry which was a quasi-state body, funded jointly by the government and German industry. Moreover, she had long since abjured the Jewish faith, having been baptized as an Evangelical Protestant in 1908. She had once said: "I am not Jewish by belief, know nothing of the history of Judaism, and do not feel closer to the Jews than to any other people." None of this carried weight with the Prussian Ministry of Education to which in April she was obliged to attest that the "race" of her four grandparents was "Non-Aryan." She was dismissed from her professorship at the University of Berlin. Hahn made a forceful argument on her behalf, directly to Bernhard Rust, a Nazi party hack from the early years with Hitler, who was the minister. Hahn argued that she enjoyed "a reputation as a leading radium researcher in this country and abroad, directly next to Madame Curie, the Nobel Prize winner in Paris." Max Planck also made a strong plea for her, describing her as "the soul of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry." But to no avail.

She was advised by her friends to sit tight, and she needed little persuasion. A faculty position at Swarthmore was offered and refused; even the chance of a year with Bohr at his institute in Copenhagen was turned down. She stubbornly refused to consider emigration so that, when the noose began to tighten, it was almost too late. In March 1938 Hitler "reclaimed" Austria for the Greater German Reich. One of the party members working at the KWI for Chemistry wasted no time before declaring that "the Jewess endangers the Institute." Friends abroad began to rally to her cause. Invitations for visits, but actually intended to get her out of Germany permanently, came from Zurich and Denmark. They were at first politely refused. But as Sime puts it: "Meitner slowly grasped the inevitable; she had to get out. Offers came, as well, from America; but she thought America 'too distant, too foreign.' "When she later decided to accept the offer from Bohr in Denmark she was refused a visa by the Danish Consulate because -- since the Anschluss -- she had become a German citizen, and she had only an Austrian passport.

Now, two Dutch friends, the physicists Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, sought to help her escape, if possible to work in Holland, but if not, in Denmark or Sweden. Both men were working hard to raise money to support her when a letter from the German Ministry of the Interior arrived, addressed to her superior, Carl Bosch. Bosch showed it to her. "It is considered undesirable," the letter said, "that well-known Jews leave Germany to travel abroad where they appear to be representatives of German science," adding ominously that "This statement represents in particular the view of the Reichsfuhrer-SS [Himmler] and the Chief of the German Police." Strenuous efforts to get Meitner out of Germany continued, and at last a position was manufactured for her at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Stockholm. A letter from Bosch now came, telling her that the policy of barring scientists from leaving Germany was about to be strictly enforced. It was now obvious that she must leave at once.

In the event, she was spirited out of Germany by Dirk Coster who made the journey to Berlin to fetch her. It was an extraordinary act of friendship and courage since the border between Germany and Holland was closely guarded. It also demonstrates the high regard in which she was held by everyone who knew her. Coster proposed to take her on a lightly travelled rail line that crossed the border at a small station. Before he left for Berlin Coster enlisted the help of an acquaintance who was an influential politician. Together they drove to the border station where they succeeded in persuading the immigration officers to let Meitner cross into Dutch territory. Writing of her escape a decade later, she said: "So as not to arouse suspicion I spent the last day of my life in Germany in the institute until eight at night.... Then I had exactly one and a half hours to pack a few necessary things." Hahn helped her to pack and gave her a ring that had belonged to his mother "to provide for Lise in an emergency." She an d Coster crossed into Holland without incident, Hahn's ring in Coster's pocket in case she should be searched. They were only just in time; for Professor Kurt Hess, who had denounced her as a danger to the Institute, had alerted the SS that she was about to flee. From Holland she later flew to Stockholm and safety.

At age 59 she had no money, few possessions, none of her scientific records, and an uncertain future in a country whose language she did not speak. Her position at the Nobel Institute for Physics was still uncertain, and it was clear that the head of the Institute did not particularly welcome her arriving. Most devastating for her in the longer run was the fact that her enforced absence from Berlin prevented her from participating in the last sequence of Hahn's experiments which were to lead to the discovery of nuclear fission.

IN January 1934 the Joliot-Curies had announced their discovery of artificial radioactivity, the result of bombarding some of the light elements with alpha particles (nuclei of helium). In Rome, impressed by this breakthrough, Enrico Fermi began to work through all the elements in order to see what further radioactive isotopes could be produced, but using neutrons rather than alpha particles because of their greater penetrating power. By 10 May that year Fermi and his co-workers had reached the last element in the periodic table -- uranium -- with interesting results, Fermi cautiously suggesting that they might have produced at least one new element. When Meitner heard of Fermi's early results she was immediately interested. She began by confirming the Joliot-Curie findings and then verified Fermi's as they were reported. After some hesitation Hahn agreed to resume their collaboration and they began a thorough investigation of uranium. As Hahn was now the director of the KWI for Chemistry and unable to devote all his time to research, they co-opted Fritz Strassmann, an expert in chemical analysis, to assist them.

It proved to be a lengthy and difficult business, with Meitner effectively in charge, though dependent on Hahn and Strassmann for the chemistry. Then, in July 1938, her direct part in the work came to an enforced end, although Hahn (at some risk to himself) continued to write to her. In mid-November, six days after Meitner's sixtieth birthday, they met fleetingly in Copenhagen where they talked over Hahn's latest problems in interpreting the results that he and Strassmann were getting. She strongly urged him to undertake a further intensive examination of them. Writing many years later, Strassmann said: "To this day I remain convinced that it was L. Meitner's critical demand that motivated us to test our findings once again, after which the result [that they had achieved fission of the nucleus] came to us." But Hahn was still uneasy. He wrote to her on 21 December: "How beautiful and exciting it would be just now if we could have worked together as before. We [he and Strassmann] cannot suppress our results ev en if they are perhaps physically absurd. You will do a good deed if you can find a way out of this." Two days later Meitner left Stockholm to spend Christmas with friends. Her nephew the physicist Otto Frisch, joined her there, where he found her puzzling over the letter from Hahn. She insisted that they discuss it, even though he had a problem of his own he wanted to talk about. They went for a walk in the snow, sat down on a log, did some calculations, argued back and forth, and came up with the answer Hahn was curiously unwilling to find. Hahn and Strassmann had split the atom.

Two papers were published in Nature in February 1939, the first jointly by Meitner and Frisch, proposing "a new type of nuclear reaction," and the second by Frisch alone providing experimental proof that their conclusions were correct. Kurt Mendelssohn, a German scientist who fled the German Reich in 1933, commented ironically that "Fission, the key to the release of atomic energy, was first observed in Germany, but its true nature was recognized by two Austrian refugees." Unfortunately for them, by the time the two papers were published, word of the discovery of fission had reached America, and the race to exploit it had begun. Although Bohr, then in America, tried hard to establish their claim to priority, only Hahn's name appeared in the American newspapers.

Through 1939 Meitner continued to complain to Hahn about her isolation, the lack of facilities allowed her at the Nobel Institute, and the indifference of its director to her plight. Although, as Sime writes, she worked and lived in Sweden for another twenty years, she "would not fully establish herself in physics again." In July 1939 she was invited to Cambridge and was offered a position at the Cavendish Laboratory and a place at one of the women's colleges (Girton). Once again she hesitated, asking to defer it for a year. Only weeks later Hitler invaded Poland and Europe was at war. Visits to Copenhagen continued to provide an escape, permitting her to use the facilities offered by Bohr's institute. She was there when, on 8 April 1940, German troops occupied the country without a shot being fired. She continued her brief stay, unmolested, but it was clear that her visits would sooner or later have to end. By September 1943 the deportation of Danish Jews began. The Bohrs fled to Sweden (his wife was Jewish ) along with many other Danes as the Swedish government opened its border to them. Bohr later went to America, but his wife and family stayed in Sweden for the duration - much to Meitner's delight. According to Sime (not confirmed by Rife) it was in 1943 that Meitner was invited to join a delegation of scientists from Britain who were going to Los Alamos (Frisch was one of them). She refused, presumably because she either divined, or was told, why they were going. She understood the potential destructiveness of nuclear fission and wanted no part of it. She "waited for the end of the war in anxious isolation."

OTTO HAHN was in captivity in England when word came that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for 1944. It was mid-November 1945. The reaction to the news by Meitner's friends and colleagues was one of outrage. The Nobel Committee for Chemistry had obviously ignored the long years of partnership with Hahn -- their shared research on naturally occurring radioactivities -- and the part she had played in the discovery and elucidation of nuclear fission to which that work had led and for which the prize was given. It is now known that there was some dissension in the committee itself, and the decision was taken to defer the award for a year to allow the contributions of Meitner, Frisch, and Strassmann to be assessed. Bohr was strongly urging that the prize should be shared by Hahn, Meitner and Frisch. Strassmann could not be included because of the Nobel rule which forbade more than three persons sharing a prize. The decision to defer was overridden by the Swedish Academy - which has the final voic e - but the vote to award the prize to Hahn alone was carried by only a small majority.

Nobel prizes are frequently controversial. In one case (in physics) an award of the prize was actually challenged in the courts by an aggrieved competitor, the matter eventually reaching the Supreme Court of the United States. Perhaps the closest example to Meitner's case is that of Charles Best who was passed over for the prize for Medicine (the discovery of insulin) in 1923, a prize that he should rightfully have shared with Banting. Both Banting and Hahn shared part of their prize money with their neglected associates, but in Hahn's case it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was conscience money.

Both Sine and Rife condemn Hahn for his later re-writing of the long history of collaboration with Meitner. In a letter written in 1936 refusing to give a lecture to the German Chemical Society he said: "One hears only my name for investigations which Lise Meitner engaged in as fully as I. I think it is not quite right when I take credit for intellectual property which is not mine exclusively." But that is exactly what he proceeded to do in the years after 1945 when he was permitted to return to Germany. As Sime says: "Hahn single-mindedly stayed [on] the course he had set [himself]: fission belonged to chemistry alone ... physicists had deemed fission impossible, and thereby delayed its discovery." He also emerged after 1946 as something of a cult figure. He came to represent the small band of men who had held the fort for the true German science - Heisenberg posed as another - against the party members who invaded the laboratories and the lecture halls under the Third Reich. In this role, his "assistant" ( as Meitner increasingly came to be called) had no place.

Meitner was not unduly disturbed by the fact that she did not share the Nobel Prize with Hahn, and she told her long-time friend James Franck in 1995 that she would not have accepted it without Frisch. Many awards and prizes came to her in the next twenty years. In 1945 she was elected a foreign member of the Royal Academy of Sciences. Four years later she became a Swedish citizen, which entitled her to become a full member, which in turn, ironically, permitted her a voice in the selection of Nobelists. She was awarded medals, prizes, had an Institute of Nuclear Research named for her, was feted on her return visits to Germany. There are schools and even streets named for her.

IN 1960, aged 82, she retired to England to be close to her nephew and his family (Frisch was then a professor of physics at Cambridge and a Fellow of Trinity College). Six years later she was given, together with Strassmann and Hahn, the prestigious Enrico Fermi Award which "recognises scientists of international stature for their lifetimes of exceptional achievement." Too ill then to travel she was presented with the award in Cambridge in October 1966. She died two years later, three months after Hahn, and thirty years after her flight from Germany. As a correspondent writing to Scientific American (May 1988) put it: "Meitner might have been overlooked by the Nobel Committee, but who needs a Nobel Prize when one is immortalised in the Periodic Table?" Element 109 is named meitnerium.

J.W. GROVE, an emeritus professor of political studies at Queen's, has a long-standing interest in the history of the physical sciences in the twentieth century and in the lives of those who made it.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:GROVE, J. W.
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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