"Sime has produced a magnificent biography that should help rescue Meitner from oblivion. . . . The story, especially in the lead-up to the discovery of fission by Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman, is absolutely gripping, full of twists and false dawns."--Tania Monteiro, "New Scientist
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) was a pioneer of nuclear physics and codiscoverer, with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, of nuclear fission. Of Jewish origin, she fled Nazi Germany for Stockholm in 1938 and later moved to Cambridge, England. Ruth Sime's book is a biography of Lise Meitner, the story of a brilliant woman whose life illustrates not only the dramatic scientific progress but also the injustice and destruction that have marked the 20th century. A shy girl, Meitner grew up to be a renowned scientist. Braving the sexism of the scientific world, she joined the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry and became a prominent member of the international physics community. Her career was shattered when she fled Germany, and her scientific reputation was damaged when Hahn took full credit - and the 1944 Nobel Prize - for the work they had done together on nuclear fission.
The times of Lise Meitner spans two World Wars, and the ensuing Cold War between the two super powers of the East and the West. Lise Meitner's career also spans some of the most fascinating developments of modern physics. As it happened, this includes the beginning of the nuclear age; and it continues with the age of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy resulting from pioneering and basic research into nuclear fission, started by the two Meitner and Otto Hahn. Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, and she started her career in the turbulent times of the First World War, at a time when Germany was a clear leader in physics research, in the Golden Era of physics. Yet, Lise Meitner was the first woman German scientist. When she started her studies, German universities were almost entirely closed to women; and especially so in the sciences. The author Ruth Sime paints a personal and a compassionate portrait of Lise Meitner, her life and her times; and she vividly brings to life the tragic events in our modern history which shaped Lise Meitner's turbulent career. A central theme in the book is the physics community's reaction to the first use by the USA of a fission bomb over Japan in 1945, (in fact it was two nuclear bombs, one was a Uranium bomb, and the other Plutonium.) In Berlin, building on a decade of research by Meintner and Otto Hahn, in 1938, the three Lise Meitner, Hahn, and Fritz Strassmann discovered nuclear fission. The Nobel Prize went to Hahn alone, and Lise Meitner has been largely forgotten. The book weaves together the individuals, their thoughts (through correspondence), their ambitions, and their flawed judgments. A part of the story is the ensuing events following the discovery of fission; events that were shaped largely by others than Lise Meitner.Lesen Sie weiter... ›
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I found this a very readable and important summary of Meitner's career.It is a very human story and helps explain the great injustices which deprived her of a well deserved Nobel Prize. It's manages full scientific details without becoming obscure.
This book is both a well-written biography of Lise Meitner and an attempt to put her contribution to nuclear fission into perspective. Sime is a good writer and she makes a strong case that Otto Hahn’s Nobel Prize should have, and would have, been shared with Meitner if political conditions and Hahn’s self-justificatory behavior had been different. Sime uses extensive documentation to show that there is no doubt that Hahn, Meitner and Fritz Strassman were a team. When Meitner was forced to leave Germany for fear of her life in 1938, she and Hahn continued a back-and-forth series of letters that clearly show that Hahn the chemist, who admitted he did not understand the physics, relied intimately on Meitner the physicist to advance his work. Sime details the exile of Meitner in Sweden where she had almost no resources to work with and spends the last 30% of the book covering the ensuing events surrounding both Meitner’s and Hahn’s lives. It is an eye-opening chapter of nuclear physics.
But the book is about much more than the Hitler and post-war years. It covers the details of Meitner’s childhood in Vienna and spends a good deal of time spelling out her work in experimental nuclear physics. Non-scientists may have a hard time following certain sections in the book in which Sime, a chemist, explains the details of Meitner’s work with the radioactive elements. But this is important for the historical record of Meitner’s achievements and the book would be incomplete without it. To anyone with a background in chemistry and physics these sections are a central part of the history of our understanding of radioactivity. Sime, unlike many writers about science, is able to combine the details of her subject's scientific work with a superbly written account of her personal struggles. Parts of the book are gripping reading. Meitner’s escape from Nazi Germany was a desperate move surrounded by life-threatening dangers and bureaucratic blocks to her movement. Her relationship with those scientists who stayed in Germany provides a thirty year post-war dialogue about courage and cowardice, truth and self-deception, and whether scientists should be held responsible for what happens to their discoveries. Meitner’s close friendship with Hahn and the voluminous correspondence between them may be unique in the history of physics. After the war Otto Hahn went on to become a household name in Germany – a man who stood for scientific achievement, integrity and charm. Streets, institutes, postage stamps – all honored him. This book is about his partner, a woman whose achievements were misunderstood and usually overlooked. Lise Meitner deserved so much more. I highly recommend the book.
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Note: this review contains mild spoilers--although this is a biography of a historical figure, I expect most readers of the book won't know much about Meitner's life before reading it.
The author of this remarkable biography, Sime, is a chemist, and this is, as far as I can tell, her only book. So I can understand why the book is a bit uneven. Early chapters focus on the happier days of Meitner's scientific career, but the nuclear chemistry is explained using the terminology that was in use at the time (the 1920's and 1930's), rather than the modern version. This is presumably done to avoid "spoiling" the sense of scientific discovery by giving away the answers to the thorny mysteries they were pursuing, but not enough context is provided to understand these issues, so even for a modern student of chemistry or physics, those parts can be a slog. And for readers less knowledgable in those subjects it's likely to turn them off to the book altogether.
But hang in there! As we watch the rise of the Third Reich from Meitner's perspective, the narrative becomes compelling, thought-provoking, chilling, and at times action-packed. Sime's skills as a biographer improve, and the people described approach the full characterizations we're used to seeing in fiction. Then, as we move back to science with the discovery of fission, the explanations are clearer, the narrative tighter, and the descriptions more familiar than in the early chapters.
In the end, this is a remarkable biography of a remarkable person. Be willing to skim the first five chapters to get an idea of some of the background, and then slow down around Chapter 6.
Lise Meitner was a giant in physics, but this review is about the book.
I found it to be full of detail that ties together a lot of contributors that appear in our science books. It is well written and clear and acccurate as far as I can tell. This was a very important period in world history and the event covered covered by the book are dramatic.
PS- I think the contributions of chemists (like Hahn) are generally under appreciated...the theories that were proposed by Meitner et al. sometimes led the chemists in the wrong direction. Rather than Meitner being viewed as the person who explained observations to Hahn; you could interpret it that Hahn would have followed his observations an concluded that fission was occuring earlier if Meitner et al. had not continually insisted that it could not happen. (E.g., everytime Hahn said "barium", she said it can't be; look for something else and check your methods.)
This is a great account of a very interesting life of a great physicist and human being. The physics discoveries and achievements are described and explained with great detail and depth and are just as interesting as the historical context and the personal side of the story. Once I started reading, it was hard to put the book down and it is already the second time I am giving this book as a gift.
The only problem with the latest copy was that the content is glued back-to-front inside the cover, so that when the book is read, it would appear to an on-looker as if it is being held upside down. Slightly disappointing, especially for a gift!
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I first learned of Lise Meitner from a book on atomic energy when I was a kid. I remember the illustration of her and her lab partner Otto Hahn staring at an apparatus in which they discovered the tell-tale signs of radioactive fission. But when I went through science courses in high school and college, she was hardly mentioned. This book has put her in her rightful place in the history of the atomic age. While it is always easy for a biographer to skew the importance of the individual being chronicled, that is certainly not the case here. Given the obstacles placed in her path by her gender, her religious affiliations, and her citizenship, her story is all that more remarkable for a view of our world which has been papered over in the last half-century.
That she would persevere despite everything is a testament to will and the desire for knowledge. Girls growing up in this day and age are not encouraged to pursue the scientific disciplines, but I think if a young girl today were to read Lise Meitner's story, she might just be inspired. I fully intend to give my copy to my daughter some day, in the hope of stirring a passion for science and the knowledge that if she applies herself, no matter the obstacles, she can become someone great.