Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do. : Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day Tribute: Lise Meitner

Not having studied much physics I was unaware of who Lise Meitner was, or of the central contribution that she made to the understanding of nuclear fission, until I heard an interview with the actress Jenny Agutter, who had come to admire Meitner too. Now that I do know about her I expect that others will be mentioning her on this occasion too.

I can believe that she was remarkable enough for having had the insights that she did in nuclear physics. When you take into account the discrimination that she met as a women, her shyness in youth and, not least, her need to flee the persecution by the Nazis as a Jew her achievement is stunning. Far from being embittered or hardened by these experiences, however, she refused to apply her intellect toward the task of building the atomic bomb.

That's one way that she is often shown—that photo at the right—when she was a lovely young woman. And, here's how she looked as represented by actress Emily Woof in “Einstein's Big Idea” on the American Public Broadcasting System.

The programme is somewhat misleading. Meitner was born in 1878 and this video takes up her story from 1938, when she was about 60. I knew that others would be writing about Meitner; I wanted to say something a little different about her and others like her, if possible. It is this. Here is how she would have looked in 1933 (from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin) just a few years earlier. She would not have looked like she was 35.

What I wanted to say is that older women, like Lise Meitner, are capable of amazing things.