You are here

Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

Patricia Rife
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

Lise Meitner (1878–1968) was an Austrian physicist who worked in radioactive materials and is best known for explaining nuclear fission. The largest part of her career was a 30-year collaboration with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin.

Rife's biography is very strong on describing the social and political environment that Meitner worked in, in particular the status of women in academic work and the forces that led to the rise of the Nazis. Unfortunately it slights Meitner's personality, and we see her accomplishments but do not get a good sense of the person.

Meitner was Jewish by ancestry, but had no knowledge of Jewish religion or culture and was baptized a Lutheran at the age of 30. But in Nazi terms she was still a Jew, and she was deprived of her job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. She was reluctant to leave Germany, and like many Germans thought the Nazis were just a phase and would blow over. She was finally persuaded to leave in 1938, and went to Sweden by way of Holland.

Meitner and Hahn continued their collaboration by mail. Hahn wrote that some radiation experiments on uranium which had previously been thought to produce radium actually produced the chemically very similar barium. Barium has only about half the number of protons as uranium, and everyone immediately suspected that the uranium nucleus had split in two, but no one had a theory that would justify this. Meitner, working with her nephew Otto Frisch, devised the theory. However the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, citing the discovery of fission, went to Hahn alone, starting a still-simmering controversy about Meitner's contribution. Meitner did (posthumously) get something even rarer than a Nobel: a chemical element named after her, element 109, meitnerium.

This book is a 2007 paperback reprint of the 1999 hardcover, apparently without changes. "The competition" in the Meitner biography business is Ruth Lewin Sime's Lise Meitner: A Life in Science (University of California Press, 1996). Sime's book does a very good job of presenting Meitner's personality, and it has a lot more scientific detail. Overall Sime's is the better book for getting to know Meitner.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist, library propagandist, and retired computer programmer. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis.

 Foreword by John Archibald Wheeler.-Introduction by Patricia Rife.-Choosing the Path of Physics: 1878–1906.-Berlin: 1907–1909.-New Explorations at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute: 1909–1914.-World War I and Its Consequences: 1914–1920.-Shadows Lengthen: The Struggle out of the Causal Chain: 1920–1932.-Science in Nazi Germany: 1933–1936.-The Transuranic Maze: 1934–1938.-Escape from Nazi Germany: 1938.-The Discovery and Interpretation of Fission: 1938.-The News of Fission Spreads: 1939.-Chain Reaction and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age: 1939.-Secrecy and Code Names: War Research Surrounding Nuclear Fission: 1939–1942.-The Dark Days of War: 1941–1945.-The Atomic Bomb, a Trip to Washington, and the Nobel Prize Controversy: 1945–1946.-Epilogue: What Scientists Will Make of This Newly Found Knowledge: 1947–1968.-Endnotes.-Chronology.-List of Awards and Honors.-Publications by Lise Meitner.-Bibliography.-Index.