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Technology and Culture 42.2 (2001) 375-377
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Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age
Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. By Patricia Rife. New York: Springer, 1999. Pp. xviii+432. $39.95.
Lise Meitner was an amazing woman. Despite the dual disadvantages of being female and Jewish, the Austrian-born physicist established a first-class career starting in the 1910s and 1920s in Berlin, where such luminaries as Max Planck and Albert Einstein were developing a new quantum-based physics. Working both independently and with chemist Otto Hahn, through the 1930s Meitner was part of the worldwide effort to investigate radioactive substances (she and Hahn were codiscoverers of the element protactinium in 1917). In 1938, at the age of sixty, she fled first to the Netherlands, then to Scandinavia to escape Nazi persecution. After settling in Sweden, she managed to reestablish her research program, even though she was living and working in a foreign country where she did not speak the language, received low pay, and lacked good laboratory equipment.
Incredibly, in the face of such difficulties, she was not only able to continue research but also played a key role in one of the most important discoveries of the time. In late 1938 she received a letter from Hahn, who [End Page 375] described the results of an experiment he had conducted with a Berlin colleague, Fritz Strassmann. The experiment was meant to test whether uranium bombarded with neutrons would create a new transuranic element. Instead, the substance created seemed to be the element barium. Meitner's nephew, Otto Frisch (who had also fled Nazi persecution), had come from the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen to spend the Christmas holidays with her, and together they tried to make sense of the puzzle. After considering Bohr's recent liquid drop model of the nucleus and some calculations made by Meitner, they came to a startling conclusion: the barium could have been produced through a breaking apart of the uranium nucleus. Frisch experimentally confirmed the phenomenon, and in a paper he and Meitner dubbed the phenomena "fission." The discovery of fission would help jump-start the British and U.S. programs to build atomic weapons in World War II and would lead to the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry, which was awarded to Hahn alone.
Patricia Rife's biography truly brings Meitner to life, both as a scientist and as a woman. What I liked best was the way Rife weaves Meitner's personal struggles into the social and political fabric of her times. For example, the story of Meitner's early career is told against the backdrop of the development of the new physics, with plentiful illumination of the limited prospects for women scientists in the German-speaking world during the early twentieth century. When Meitner's story enters the Nazi era--including her escape from Germany--it is as riveting as the best novel.
Rife notes in the introduction: "Meitner's life story makes it clear that she was often at the center of revolutionary events, while she was forced toward the periphery through discriminatory practices and politics, excluded from decisions made about her own work, and denied just and formal recognition by her peers" (p. xv). It is painful to read how Meitner's career lagged behind that of Hahn--who was the same age and an equal partner in research--from the early days when he won quicker advancement, greater decision-making power, and higher salaries in Berlin to the time when he alone won the Nobel Prize due to experimental work she missed only because she had fled Nazi Germany. Thanks to Rife's skill at portraying Meitner's persevering nature, however, this book is upbeat and inspirational.
Rife's book will not please everyone. Historians looking for in-depth technical information will be disappointed because she gives fairly short shrift to the scientific details of Meitner's career. There are also a few errors. For example, Rife reports that plutonium (which was first created in 1940...