Fission Girl

On March 12, 1938, German troops crossed over the Austrian border to welcoming cheers and adulation. In one instant, Lise Meitner's veil of protection, her Austrian citizenship, disappeared. Lise Meitner, though she had converted to Protestantism, was born Jewish, and that’s all that mattered. Her lifelong collaborator Otto Hahn, concerned both for her and his standing at the institute, sought the advice of Heinrich Horlein, overseeing treasurer of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, returning with the news that Lise had to leave the institute immediately, never to return.

Scientists outside of Germany, realizing Lise’s desperate position, sent letters requesting her lectureship abroad, a pretense to get her out of the country.

Lise Meitner was a physicist who by this time had already been recognized for her vast contributions to the world of physics, in addition to discovering, along with Otto Hahn, the element protactinium, and the two of them were now working on something far greater.

Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who developed the orbital model of the atom, was alarmed enough after personally visiting with Lise in Germany, that he wrote to physicists across Europe to find or make a position for her — anything.
Lise’s application for a passport to leave Germany was rejected. “It is considered undesirable that well-known Jews leave Germany to travel abroad where they appear to be representatives of German science, or with their names and their corresponding experience might even demonstrate their inner attitude against Germany. (Wilhelm Frick to Carl Bosch, June 16, 1938).”

Meanwhile, on July 4, 1938 Carl Bosch found out that Germany’s borders were going to be closed imminently. Lise had to leave now if she were going to leave at all.

Fortunately, on Monday July 11, 1938, Meitner received word that Holland would admit her. Dirk Coster arrived late Monday evening, and planned on smuggling Meitner out of the country the next day on a lightly-traveled train route that crossed the border at Nieuwe Schans.

“We agreed on a code-telegram in which we would be let known whether the journey ended in success or failure. The danger consisted in the SS’s repeated passport control of trains crossing the frontier. People trying to leave Germany were always being arrested on the train and brought back… We were shaking with fear whether she would get through or not.” - Otto Hahn wrote in his autobiography, My Life.

The next day, Tuesday, July 13, 1938, Lise Meitner went to work at the institute as usual. She worked until 8 o’clock that night, correcting a paper that one of her young associates was preparing for submission. Otto Hahn went home with her, helping her pack a few of her belongings. While they were saying their goodbyes, Hahn slipped her his mother’s diamond ring. “Keep this. You may need it.”

She said goodbye to no one else, her excursion that night cloaked in utmost secrecy.

Paul Rosbaud, an Allied spy who had successfully relocated his own Jewish wife and daughter to England, drove her to the train station. Though he would help many Jewish families escape Germany, Lise Meitner’s would be his most famous. As they drove closer to the train station, Meitner, consumed with the fear of being caught, and the regret of leaving the only life she had known, begged Paul to take her back, to no avail.

Kirk Coster was already on the train when Lise boarded. They greeted each other as if by chance. The train ride was pleasant enough, but with all her belongings reduced to two suitcases, and her destination unconfirmed, Lise was palpably upset. That upset quickly changed to heart-pounding fear, as Lise’s train approached the Dutch border. Would she be arrested? Or worse?
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This book Fission Girl, is the story of Lise Meitner, her escape from Nazi Germany, her discovery of nuclear fission and her role in the creation of the atomic bomb, known as the Manhattan Project.

Should Lise Meitner Have Left Germany Sooner?

Albert Einstein was a visiting professor at Cal Tech in Pasadena in 1933 when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. In fact, the famous photo of Einstein on a bicycle was taken during this sojourn, as were the photos taken with Charlie Chaplin, with whom he struck a friendship.

Einstein, seeing the devastating consequences of Hitler’s rise to power, decided to stay in the United States, refusing to return to Germany.

According to Einstein, “As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.”

A German publication The Völkicsher Beobachter published a number of attacks on Einstein, as well as did more mainstream papers. One such article titled, “Good News of Einstein - He’s Not Coming Back!” referred to Einstein as “this puffed-up bit of vanity [who] dared to sit in judgment on Germany without knowing what is going on here—matters that forever must remain incomprehensible to a man who was never a German in our eyes and who declares himself to be a Jew and nothing but a Jew.”

Amid such vehement and vocal anti-Semitism directed at one of her own and dearest colleagues, why did the Jewish-born Austrian Lise Meitner decide to remain in Berlin?

Lise Meitner’s Elusive Nobel

Only two women have ever received the Nobel Prize in Physics since the first prizes were awarded in 1901, Marie Curie in 1903, and Maria Goeppert Mayer in 1963.

Marie Curie won her prize in physics, along with her husband Pierre, “in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel,” and Mayer won her award “for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure.” With the dearth of women in science, especially in physics — there is a statistical report by the American Institute for Physics that 20% of all those earning bachelors and Ph.Ds. in physics are woman — is it any wonder that very few women have received this seemingly elusive honor?

And yet, I’d argue, it’s not for lack of trying.  The Nobel Prize database provides details of every nomination, including the identity of the nominator, made 50 or more years ago.  Doing such a search reveals one female physicist whose name was nominated time and time again, year after year, by such luminaries and previous recipients as Max Planck, Otto Hahn, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Louis de Broglie.  That physicist was Lise Meitner.

Lise Meitner and the Atomic Bomb

When Lise Meitner visited the United States for the first time in 1946, she became the center of a media circus.  She was cast as the “Jewish mother of the [atomic] bomb,” based on a story in the Saturday Evening Post by William L. Laurence, who was given nearly exclusive access to the scientists at Los Alamos, the seat of the Manhattan Project.  In this 1940 piece, Laurence depicted Meitner as the discoverer of nuclear fission, the process by which nuclei split into roughly equal halves, yielding untold amounts of energy that the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki unfortunately experienced first-hand.  Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr., the pilot of the Enola Gay, the bomber that dropped Little Boy upon Hiroshima, already having flown eleven and a half miles away from the site by the time the bomb exploded, recalled, “observing a silver blue flash and experiencing a strange feeling in his mouth, the same feeling as if he touched the lead and silver fillings in his mouth with a fork.” 

The 1918 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Physics

Fritz Haber and Max Planck

Zentralbild
Fritz Haber, Chemiker
geb: 9.12.1868 in Breslau,
gest: 29.1.1934 in Basel;
1918 Nobelpreis für Chemie.

The 1918 Nobel Prizes for chemistry and physics were awarded to Fritz Haber and Max Planck, respectively, both German scientists, at a time when German science was at its zenith. These prizes were announced on this day, November 13 in 1919.

Fritz Haber was honored for his method of synthesizing ammonia from its elements, nitrogen and hydrogen, and Max Planck was recognized for the “services he rendered to the advancement of Physics by his discovery of energy quanta.”

The lives and work of both these scientists intertwine with that of Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish physicist, whose role in discovering nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms, has been underplayed for a few reasons, mainly for being woman and a Jew during Nazi Germany.

Let’s start with Fritz Haber’s contribution. The importance of Fritz Haber’s work, a German Jewish chemist, cannot be underestimated.

As early as 1898 it had been predicted that the world’s population was growing at a faster rate than farms could support. The problem was that, in order to increase produce yields, farms needed more nitrogen than the soil provided naturally.