New book explores the life of ‘greatest’ physicist and former Cambridge resident Lise Meitner
Andrew Norman’s new book has quite a title: The Amazing Story of Lise Meitner: Escaping the Nazis and Becoming the World’s Greatest Physicist.
But then, it’s quite a story. The book features first-hand information provided by Lise’s nephew Philip Meitner – a refugee from the Nazis – and Philip’s wife Anne, as well as never-before-published photographs also provided by them both.
As well as giving a description of the dramatic escape of the leading physicist from Nazi Germany, the book explores how Lise, who was born in Vienna in 1878, was the first to describe the theoretical basis for the splitting of the atom, which not only benefitted mankind enormously but also, to her horror, led to the production of the atomic bomb.
Sadly, Lise was not given the recognition she deserved, even though Albert Einstein said she was “even more talented than Marie Curie herself”.
The book explains how Lise Meitner found herself working as a physicist at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin when the Nazis came to power in 1933, how she was hounded out of the country and forced to relocate to Sweden, how German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman continued with the project – on the effect of bombarding uranium (the heaviest known element at the time) with neutrons, a project which Lise herself had initiated.
It details how Hahn and Strassmann, with whom she kept in touch, came up with some extraordinary results which they were at a loss to explain, how Lise, and her nephew Otto Frisch – who was also a physicist – confirmed what they had achieved: the “splitting of the atom”, and provided them with a theoretical explanation for it.
This laid the foundation for nuclear power, medical-scanning technology, radiotherapy, electronics and, of course, the atomic bomb. It becomes clear that Lise played a crucial part in our understanding of the world of atoms and how deliberate attempts were made to deny her contribution, to belittle her achievements, and to write her out of the history books.
Andrew says: “Lise was at the heart of one of the most important discoveries ever made in physics. Its implications were enormous and it was through her work as a physicist that the atomic bomb was developed, although she would have been absolutely horrified at the thought of it. She knew it had happened but she wanted nuclear power to be used for peaceful purposes.”
Andrew was born in Berkshire in 1943 and educated in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Midsomer Norton Grammar School in Somerset, and St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He worked as a GP in Poole, Dorset – where he still lives – before a spinal injury cut short his medical career.
He is now an established writer with biographies of, among others, Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence, Adolf Hitler, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Beatrix Potter, Marilyn Monroe, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to his name.
Andrew, who is working on a biography of Joseph Stalin at present, revealed how Lise Meitner first entered his sphere of interest: “I’ve got a friend called Professor Robert Pugh, who’s an expert on bubbles and foams, and I met him in Poole – he’d just come back from Stockholm, where he’d been for about 10 years.
“He mentioned Lise Meitner and the fact that he’d actually worked in the same building that she’d worked in, and the more he told me about her, the more interested I became. When we investigated it, we found out that she was actually buried at Bramley in Hampshire.
“So he and I and another friend got in the car and went off and saw her grave, and then to my surprise I discovered that her nephew – Lise Meitner never married, by the way – Philip Meitner and his wife Anne were living near Winchester, and Philip was a retired farmer.
“So I got in touch with them and went to their house and they were most hospitable and told me all sorts of details about Lise’s life and supplied me with many unique photos which have never been seen before.
The Meitners showed me some photographs of her visiting their farm and instead of looking at the animals and the farm, she went straight into the refrigeration shed and tried to work out how the refrigerators were working – the physics of the refrigeration. She was absolutely obsessed with physics.”
So why has she become something of a forgotten figure in history? “I think the problem was that she was hounded out of Germany, she was living and working in Stockholm, and I don’t think the Nobel Committee realised the important part that she’d continued to play in the work of Otto Hahn in Germany,” suggests Andrew.
“She was in touch with them constantly; they were asking her questions, they couldn’t understand the physics of the chemistry they were doing – and she was directing and guiding them. She was described by Fritz Strassmann, who was the third member of the group, as the intellectual leader of the group.
“And after the war, Hahn really didn’t make any effort to include her – he wanted all the glory for himself – and he more-or-less shunned her after she’d served her purpose. This is part of the unfairness of the Nobel Prize. A lot of people who should have won it didn’t and no retrospective adjustments are possible, so it is inherently an unfair system.”
Lise Meitner visited Cambridge in July 1939, at the invitation of Professor William Bragg, of the Cavendish Laboratory. She was offered a post at the Cavendish and Girton College also offered her a three-year contract. She ‘practically accepted’ but decided to postpone the move until summer the following year.
By that time, however, the Second World War had broken out and the arrangement fell through. Lise would later bitterly regret her decision not to take up the offer immediately, although her association with Cambridge would not end there.
Andrew says: “Her nephew, Otto Frisch, in 1947 was appointed Jacksonian professor of natural philosophy at Cambridge; he was at Trinity College. So he was resident in Cambridge, and then in 1960 Lise relocated to Cambridge from Sweden, and that’s where she spent her latter years.
“She eventually died in a nursing home in Cambridge on October 27, 1968. She was 89. She’d been a chain-smoker all her life so it’s amazing that she lived to that age.”
Lise always kept up to date with what was going on in the world of physics. “She kept up with all the scientific journals,” explains Andrew, “she was absolutely on the ball, and Otto Frisch kept her up to date with everything that was going on, so she knew probably more than anyone else in Cambridge about nuclear fission.”
Andrew notes that if Lise hadn’t been driven out of Nazi Germany, and if she’d carried on working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, then “the Germans may well have got the bomb first – that’s how important it was. So it is an amazing story.”
Although she was never awarded a Nobel Prize, in 1997 Lise Meitner’s work was acknowledged when chemical element 109 was named ‘Meitnerium’ in her honour.
The Amazing Story of Lise Meitner: Escaping the Nazis and Becoming the World’s Greatest Physicist, published by Pen & Sword History, is available now. For more on Andrew Norman, go to andrew-norman.co.uk.