Lise Meitner's Escape from Nazi Germany and Her Role in the Manhattan Project
I’m excited to announce the release of my new book Fission Girl: Lise Meitner’s Escape from Nazi Germany and Her Role in the Manhattan Project. Get your copy of Fission Girl here.
Lise Meitner was a Jewish-born female Austrian physicist, working in Berlin at the time of Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. Though she co-discovered nuclear fission, the process of splitting an atom, with Otto Hahn, she was written out of the history books and Hahn alone received a Nobel prize. In this book, I attempt to set the story straight.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
In this episode I welcome good friend and renowned Gastroenterologist Dr. Marian Rosenthal. A gastroenterologist is an internal medicine physician who diagnoses and treats conditions that affect the esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (colon), and biliary system -- the liver, pancreas, gallbladder, and bile ducts -- to the Rocket Girls Podcast. Dr. Rosenthal, though now semi-retired (she loves her work too much to be fully retired), has served as Chairman of Regional Gastroenterology Committee for Southern California Permanente, Chief Physician of Gastroenterology Section for Kaiser West Los Angeles, and past President of the Southern California Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, and is currently an Assistant Clinical Professor for UCLA’s Department of Medicine.
Favorite Segments from the Interview:
Dr. Rosenthal discussed the “old days” of gastroenterology, barium enemas, x-rays and rigid scopes as if this was at the turn of the century, rather than the 1970s.
She also talked about being one of the few women in medical school, a phenomenon that no longer applies today in medicine, though it still rings true for physics and engineering majors. “Being a woman in medical school when there aren’t that many women you always felt that you did have to prove yourself. You had to do well you couldn’t sluff off in the class; you had to show that you belong.”
I’m thrilled to post my interview with Astronomer at the Lick Observatory and UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Sandra Faber, Ph.D. to the Rocket Girls Podcast. Dr. Faber, according to her faculty webpage at UCSC, “focuses on using the lookback power of large telescopes to study the formation and evolution of galaxies.” She has made important discoveries about how the the brightness of galaxies is related to the the speed of stars within them, co-discovered the Faber–Jackson relation, and played a significant role in designing the Keck telescopes in Hawaii. She was recognized by Discover Magazine as one of the 50 Most Important Women in Science, received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2013 and the Gruber Prize in Cosmology in 2017. Dr. Faber earned her B.A. in n Physics with minors in Mathematics and Astronomy from Swarthmore College, and earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Favorite Segments from the Interview:
Dr. Faber compared the creation of our universe to the rising of a bubble seemingly out of nowhere in a glass of Coca-Cola.
“We’ve all seen a glass of coke Coca-Cola. So, isn’t it amazing that, lets hone in with our little microscope on a little piece of the fluid there while it’s still a fluid, and then just, just like that probably due to a quantum fluctuation, a little bubble appear out of nothing right? So, the surface of that bubble is really like the space in our universe except as we know a surface has two dimensions whereas space and our universe has three. If you’re willing to forget the difference between two and three for a moment and think that we were living in a two-dimensional universe; like flat creatures slithering around on the surface.
Then the appearance of that bubble and its expansion, that’s the point. The new bubble just appears; somehow the motion of the space there just appears out of nothing. We have fluid and a microsecond later we’ve got this surface and then the surface gets bigger. This is really what the big bang was like in our universe. There’s something like the coke and we don’t really know what that something is. Which pre-existed our universe and then suddenly a little seed appeared that had within in all the potential of the space of our universe. That’s the little microscopic bubble and it’s been expanding ever since, but no I would say we’re not creating new space it’s just the space that appeared as the bubble appeared out of nowhere. It’s simply since then getting bigger.”
The Existence of Our Galaxy is Due to Tiny Quantum Density fluctuations at 10-35 seconds (that’s a really, really short amount of time) after the Big Bang.
Advice to Girls Passionate about Science
Read magazines like Discover Magazine and Scientific American. Google things you want to learn about. Read.
Study math and physics in high school.
Attend a summer institute to do authentic, publishable, scientific research
Her large collection of dried plants went to the New England Botanical Club, which placed it in the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, and her collection of ferns went to the Portland Society of Natural History. Two of her own botanical discoveries bear her name: Aster cordifolius L., var. furbishiae, and Pedicularis furbishiae, the Furbish lousewort.
Can you name this important woman whose birthday is May 15?
Maria Reiche (born May 15, 1903) was a German mathematician, archaeologist and translator who spent the bulk of her life in Peru investigating and interpreting the Nazca Lines, a series of large geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru. The figures extend approximately 50 miles and consist of hundreds of lines and geometric shapes and more than 70 animal and human shapes. You can see the image of a whale above.
Reiche began her work as an assistant to Paul Kosok from the Long Island University in Brooklyn, New York, but continued on after he had left.
Most of the lines are made by removing the reddish-brown iron oxide-coated pebbles that cover the surface of the Nazca Desert. leaving a shallow trench 4 to 6 inches deep. When this gravel is removed, the light-colored clay earth below is exposed which sharply contrasts the surrounding land surface.
It is most commonly accepted that these Nazca Lines had religious significance, though both Kosok and Reiche believed that they had astronomical purposes.
Can you name all of these famous women who share the birthday May 12?
Dorothy Hodgkin (born May 12, 1910) was an English chemist and x-ray crystallographer who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964 "for her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances." She is mostly recognized as determining the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12. She is the only English woman to have ever received a Nobel Prize in any of the three sciences. The Royal Society established the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship to enable researchers in the early stages of their career to take time out to raise a family or care for a family member. She is also the second woman in 60 years to have earned the Order of Merit by a king or queen.
Florence Nightingale (born May 12, 1820) was the first woman to have earned the Order of Merit by a king or queen. She is recognized as the founder of modern nursing. She professionalized and gave honor to the field of nursing, getting her start as a manager of nurses during the Crimean War. She is known as the "lady with the lamp," making the rounds of the wounded soldiers at night.
Matilde Coxe Stevenson (born May 12, 1849) was an American ethnologist who, along with her anthropologist husband, spent 13 years studying the Rocky Mountain region. She and her husband James Stevenson "formed the first husband-wife team in anthropology." She became the first President of the Women's Anthropological Society of America. Later on, she studied the cave, cliff and mesa ruins in New Mexico, as well as all of its Pueblo tribes. She made a special study of the Taos and Tewa Native Americans. The artifacts she collected are housed at the National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian. Stevenson also published numerous books on the Zuni Native Americans.