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.
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.”