Charlotte Kerner, Lise, Atomphysikerin – A Biography of Lise Meitner (1996)

How I got this book in my hands is nearly as fun as the book itself. I always praise Bookmooch everywhere, with the hope of converting others and grabbing the leftovers of their bookshelves, when one day, I came home to find a “mooched” book I hadn’t requested at all.

A biography of an Austrian female nuclear physicist. In German. (But I should had, a biography for teenagers)

I was grateful of this unasked present, fallen from the mailman’s basket, or so to speak. It had been such a long time I wanted to read something in German, but always found excuses not to.

But physics? I’m really not a science buff. Who was this Lise Meitner I’d never heard of?

Yet the gender aspect (call it my feminist chord) interested me. And the Jewish aspect, for Lise Meitner was born into a Jewish home in Vienna at the turn of the century, and worked in Germany from 1906 to 1938.

So I embarked into the adventure of reading a biography about a female nuclear physicist in German. Bottom line, I was fascinated, so that the few words I couldn’t really understand were easily guessed, except for a few crucial passages that really frustrated me.

In the meantime, I embarked into a second adventure, to find the “moocher” and check if there was a “moochee”. I sent a few e-mails around, making guesses from the stamped address (moochers are identified by nicknames to protect privacy). It happened to be a German moocher who had sent me a book a few months before, and who had mistaken me for someone else. I agreed to send the book further on to its rightful “moochee”.

So, back to Lise Meitner. The biography was interesting because it was candid. She was indeed a pioneer in science, and one of the first women to get a university degree, but she had next to no feminist awareness. What she achieved, by sheer determination, was only for her personal sake and out of love for science. She didn’t care so much about equal education for women in general. When she saw that her professional career was blocked in Austria, she just moved to Berlin.

Later on, she was embittered that she was often described as a mere assistant to Otto Hahn who was awarded the Nobel Prize for discovering nuclear fission. She was her partner and without her work the nuclear fission wouldn’t have been discovered by Berlin teams.

The second thing was that she had next to no awareness of discrimination against Jews, until much too late. Her family was of Jewish origin but secular, and she converted to Protestantism in 1908. She worked in Germany for as long as it was possible for her, long after the Nazi access to power. She witnessed other scientists being forced to resign but said nothing because she was protected by her Austrian passport, until 1938 when Austria was annexed to Germany. She then escaped to Sweden, and although she kept contact with her colleagues in Germany and was in touch with Einstein and the US team who invented the Bomb A, she refused to work on military use of her explorations. After the war she refused to go back to Germany and took Swedish citizenship and moved to Britain.

I quite enjoyed this short book. After reading La Douleur by Duras, I was interested to see how a “normal woman”, in a sense of a professional not interested in politics, was impacted by war and how it changed her—or not so much.

Following this one, I started other books on daily life during the war: a novel about Budapest Liberation by Sandor Marai, an autobiography by Simone Veil and the diary of an anonymous woman in Berlin (which I haven’t finished yet, it’s in German and much tougher!)

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One thought on “Charlotte Kerner, Lise, Atomphysikerin – A Biography of Lise Meitner (1996)

  1. This looks really interesting. My husband is a physicist and we’ve had many a long conversation about the unfortunate shortage of women in science. He doesn’t work with a single female physicist at his institute now, and he hasn’t had a female doctoral student come through the department in a long time. In the US, there were more, but still not enough. And it’s really sad that Kerner didn’t get the credit she deserved. Glad people are writing about her now!

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