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Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (California Studies in the History of Science) Paperback – 11 Jun 1997

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Product details

  • Paperback: 540 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Reprint edition (11 Jun. 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520208609
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520208605
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 3.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 679,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

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Product Description


"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

About the Author

Ruth Lewin Sime is on the chemistry faculty at Sacramento City College. She co-wrote and narrated a BBC-TV program on Lise Meitner, A Gift From Heaven, which was named one of the best science programs of the year by The Royal Society in 1992.

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Lise Meitner was born in Vienna in 1878, the third child of Hedwig and Philipp Meitner. Read the first page
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 3 Jun. 1999
Format: Hardcover
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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 22 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
A Glimpse of a World We Hardly Knew 23 Oct. 2007
By William Grother - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Excellent birography of an excellent scientist ! 8 Feb. 2008
By Chem - Published on
Format: Paperback
Lise Meitner may not be particularly well known outside of scientific circles today, but the same could be said of a lot of other great scientists, mathematicians, etc...Anyway, she is one of my favorite scientists of all time. This book helped cement that for me...

One of the reasons for her fame (or slight lack thereof) is that she never recieved the Nobel Prize for her nuclear work. It went to Otto Hahn. Had Lise shared in the prize, as many think she should have, she would almost certainly be better known today. I mean, the Nobel Prize sort of separates "known scientists" from "unknowns" as far as the general population is concerned (not counting popularizers like the late Carl Sagan and Stephen J. Gould). She was however, briefly famous in the US after WW2 as the "mother of the atom bomb" or some such - a title she rather disliked...In the late 1990s, the element 109 was named "Meitnerium" in her honor. And I beleive the element named for Hahn ("Hahnium"?) has been renamed something else.

I won't go into the plot of the book since its a biography and we know about whom. I will say she faced huge obstacles in her life, most notably being a young female who desired a high education at the turn of the century (1800s-1900s I mean) and who managed to obtain it; also being a Jewess scientist during the Nazi takeover of Germany and Austria - this time as a middle-aged woman (almost 60), forced to rebuild her life. She perservered ! These obstacles are well documented and discussed in this excellent book.

There is a brief but fascinating look into Vienna in the late 1800s that really enjoyed. It showed how the Meitners came to be in Vienna and what their world was like. I would have liked to have known more about her siblings, where they went and what they became (particularly her little brother Walter, who is tantalizingly mentioned several times as Lise's favorite - but no details are given. The two are buried near each other in Bramley, England).

If there is a negative to the book, it is that there's a certain amount of strict science (numbers, math, sci-jargon, and calculations) in the book. BUT - don't let that turn you off ! I just skipped past those parts that were over my head, and focused on the "biographical" part - the parts about Lise herself, which in fact, make up the majority of the book. Author Sime made it easy to do that in the way she wrote the book.

I highly recommend this work. I believe this will be the definitive Bio on Meitner, barring any unknown letters, secret love-child, or other stuff coming to light....Kudos to author Dr. Ruth Sime for the great work!
10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A Sordid story of Racist and Sexist Finally Told 29 Mar. 2007
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on
Format: Paperback
This is the story, well told, of one of the world's most important achievements by one of its finest scientific heroes who was forced to suffer the indignities of both racism and sexism.

Against improbably long odds, beginning with her family who did not want her to become a Physicist, to Nazi persecution for being a Jew, to her eventual need to flee Nazi Germany to exile in Sweden, Lise Meitner's career progression led her to be among the logical choices to discover how to split the atom and to infer that it could lead to a chain reaction, and eventually to the development of the fissional atomic bomb.

This gripping story tells of how her less able male colleague, Otto Hahn, a Nazi Chemist, rather than a Physicist, effectively stole her ideas and went on to win a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1944) for an achievement that should justly have gone to a Physcist, and Meitner in particular.

In fact Hahn had no idea how to interpret the experimental data in his hand until Meitner, through correspondence from exile in Sweden interpreted it for him. Based on her continuous advice via mail, Hahn was eventually able to take credit for her ideas. And although this egregious error was never formally corrected, Meitner, with great dignity and strength remains larger than life and stands as a towering monument to what the human spirit can accomplish in the face of racism and chauvinism. Five stars.
13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
a turbulent time 2 Oct. 2005
By Palle E T Jorgensen - Published on
Format: Paperback
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. During the Second World War, Lise Meitner was a refugee in neutral Sweden. Since she was part Jewish, she had to flee for her life; flee what became Hitler's extermination machine. The racial laws began in the Third Reich with Hitler's dismissal in 1933 of university faculty with Jewish family tree, and it progressed to what we now know as the Holocaust.

Many of the German scientists in the 1930ties were Jewish, or partly Jewish, and they were dismissed by Hitler in 1933, or in the years up to the war. The year before the outbreak of war in 1939 was the last chance to escape, and the entire physics community dispersed as German scientists had to flee, --- some chose to escape. A small number went to neutral Sweden, and others who had left earlier ended up in the USA, and became leaders in the Manhattan project, the secret Los Alamos team of scientists, led by Oppenheimer, the team which built the first atomic bomb. There were some German scientists, Otto Hahn among them who didn't have to flee. They included Lise Meitner's research collaborators, Hahn, and Strassmann, plus Max von Laue, Werner Heisenberg, and of course others. Lise Meitner never married, but was close to Otto Hahn before and after the War. And at high noon, Hahn helped Meintner to escape to Niels Bohr's Copenhagen, and then to neutral Sweden when Denmark became occupied by the Third Reich.

Those of the German physicists who stayed behind were faced with a Faustian choice, knowing Hitler's evil regime and the diabolic potential of the nuclear bomb, what does a scientist do? Does he stay in Hitler's Germany even if he doesn't have to? The second half of the book is about how Lise Meitner and her colleagues judged the physics community's reaction to the Faustian choice it had faced during the ten years of the Third Reich, and which it still was facing during the Cold War. It includes personal correspondence. One letter from Lise Meitner to Otto Hahn touched me. In it Lise Meitner was addressing those of her colleagues who had stayed behind in Germany and had worked on nuclear physics for Hitler, at least in one form or the other. They were her friends and colleagues from youth, and yet she felt compelled to point out what seems to be striking moral flaws: When the war ended in 1945, few of Lise Meitner's former colleagues express any regrets, and appeared instead to ponder the question of why the USA beat the Germany team of scientists in building a fission bomb. What is especially touching is to observe how it pains Lise Meitner to have to spell out this fact to her friends; friends she remained close to for her entire life. And in this ambivalent relationship lies yet another Faustian choice.

It is perhaps ironic that the theme of the Faustian choice has a prominent place in German literature, from the medieval "Faustus" tale to Goethe, Weber's Freischuetz, to Martin Luther's Protestantism, and to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus (Mann's moral despair over his country's complacent embrace of Nazism).

Palle Jorgnesen, September 2005.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Well written, vivid and accurate account of a great scientis 3 Jun. 1999
By E. C. Anderson, - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
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