A Passion for Science

Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

by Ruth Lewin Sime
University of California Press, 526 pp., $34.95

Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner; drawing by David Levine

Lise Meitner’s career as a scientist spanned most of the heroic age of atomic physics, from the discovery of radioactivity in 1896 to the discovery of atomic fission in 1938. Born in Vienna in 1878, she spent her working life in Berlin, where Einstein called her “our Marie Curie.” Her life became tragic when the Nazis drove her from all she had lived for; and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima made her realize that her passionate devotion to atomic physics had prepared the way for a weapon of unimagined destructiveness.

She came from a liberal Jewish family in Vienna—her father was a lawyer—and she grew up in what she herself described as a remarkably stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Toward the end of the last century and until the First World War Vienna had one of the world’s leading medical schools and a renowned university. It was also a lively center of literature, music, and the arts. To illustrate the city’s intellectual ferment, Meitner’s new biographer Ruth Sime mentions Sigmund Freud, Viktor Adler, and Theodor Herzl, but neither Adler, a socialist leader, nor Herzl, a founder of Zionism, contributed much to the life of Vienna itself. She fails to mention Gustav Mahler or Arthur Schnitzler, or Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos, the two great pioneers of modern architecture, or Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, who founded the Wiener Werkstätte, the group that largely originated modern design. Sime deplores the views of Karl Lueger, Vienna’s anti-Semitic mayor, but she fails to note that Emperor Franz Josef was a philo-Semite who appointed Mahler director of the Vienna Opera at the age of only 37 and elevated many prominent Jews or men of Jewish descent to the nobility, among them the fathers of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and of the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Lise Meitner was determined from an early age to become educated like the men around her, but higher education was barred to girls, whose public schooling ended at the age of fourteen. Undeterred, she found private tutors to help her pass the entry exams for the University of Vienna, where she began the study of mathematics and physics. She had the good luck to be taught by Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the greatest physicists of all time.

At the beginning of the century the study of radioactivity was the most exciting subject in physics. Ten years after its discovery, when Meitner started her research, it was known that radium emitted three different kinds of radiation: alpha rays, which were positively charged helium nuclei shot out of the nuclei of radium atoms at a speed of more than 9000 miles a second; beta rays, which were negatively charged electrons; and gamma rays, which were electromagnetic waves like X-rays, only more penetrating. Meitner began research on alpha rays in Vienna, but after Boltzmann had killed himself in a fit of depression…

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