In a world that tries to deny her because she is a woman, tries to kill her because she is a Jew, Lise Meitner rises above it all to discover nuclear fission and spark the race for the atomic bomb.
But, with the world now at her feet and a Nobel Prize almost in her grasp, her betrayal by the man she trusts the most may prove the hardest test of all.
Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity by Tom Weston
So says the headstone at her grave in Bramley, England. It seems an odd, sleepy, backwater sort of place for her to be buried. She was born in a Vienna of imperial pomp and circumstance. She spent thirty years in Berlin. She moved with the rich and famous and powerful: President Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Max Planck, to name a few. She made the discovery that would hurl us into the nuclear age. For an all too brief moment, she was the most famous woman in the world. And yet, the rest (as Hamlet said) is silence.
The inscription on the headstone was chosen by her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch. Along with her good friend, Niels Bohr, Frisch spent many years trying to wrong the rights that were done to Lise during her life, to get the world to recognize and honour her scientific achievements; and while she is still far from being a household name, it is thanks to them, and to the determination of biographers as Ruth Lewin Sime and Patricia Rife, that the world has not entirely heard the last of Lise Meinter.
The clue as to why I picked up the story is to be found in the headstone. No, it isn’t the physics. For, as much as I like science, the scribbling of mathematical equations on blackboards and the clicking of Geiger-counters does not make for riveting story-telling. What drew me to the Lise Meitner story is the humanity.
Imagine if you would a story of greed and betrayal, intrigue and danger, war and destruction, the slaughter of the innocents on a biblical scale and the collapse of empire. And imagine at the centre of it all one little woman, brilliant but shy, victimized but resolute, and ultimately vindicated. What a story that would make! Well, you don’t have to imagine it, because that is the Lise Meitner story. And I didn’t have to invent any of it – it’s all true.
Lise shunned the spotlight; she would probably have disapproved of my version of her story, dismissed it as too gaudy, but I think her story is now much more important to the rest of us than it is to her. The world’s powers may have been content to let Lise rest in silence in the village of Bramley, but humanity is such a scarce resource that we cannot afford to lose any examples of it. If humanity is to flourish, Lise’s story and others like it need to be told, repeated often, and kept in our hearts and minds.
My version of the Lise Meitner story is called fission. I feel so strongly that this story needs to be told and shared that I have made a serialized version of fission available on-line for people to read, free of charge. Obviously as a writer, I want my story to be read by as many people as possible, but more important is to get as many people as possible to know the name, Lise Meitner.
Tom Weston’s work includes the fantasy based Alex and Jackie books, First Night and The Elf of Luxembourg. His latest project is fission, a novel based on the true life story of scientist, Lise Meitner. Prior to its scheduled paper publication in 2011, fission is being serialized online for Tom’s fans. To find out more about Tom and his work, or to read fission, please visit http://tom-weston.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/tom.weston.readers.