The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner

  • Review
By – September 9, 2022

A com­pelling sub­ject for a biog­ra­phy with com­plex con­cepts deserves an excel­lent writer. For­tu­nate­ly for young read­ers, author and artist Maris­sa Moss brings her dis­tinc­tive tal­ents to this illus­trat­ed treat­ment of the life of Jew­ish physi­cist Lise Meit­ner (18781968). Begin­ning each chap­ter with graph­ic nov­el – style pic­tures, Moss explains the intri­ca­cies of radioac­tiv­i­ty and nuclear fis­sion, as well as the frus­trat­ing prej­u­dices that Meit­ner con­fronts as a bril­liant woman in a male-dom­i­nat­ed field. Once the Nazis gain con­trol in Ger­many, frus­tra­tion turns to ter­ror as Meit­ner is forced to flee. Using con­cise, some­times epi­gram­mat­ic lan­guage, and a sig­na­ture draw­ing style that has attract­ed so many read­ers, Moss presents a unique por­trait of a strong and intel­lec­tu­al­ly accom­plished woman.

The book opens with Moss’s graph­ic pan­els of Meit­ner leav­ing Ger­many in 1938. Her face is anguished as she pos­es a ques­tion that will be key to her sto­ry: How could I leave the Insti­tute when final­ly, FINAL­LY, it didn’t mat­ter that I’m a woman? Now all that mat­ters is that I’m a Jew.” Moss encap­su­lates the con­trasts of Meitner’s life in words and images. The fright­ened sci­en­tist wears a del­i­cate lace col­lar and clutch­es a satchel while Nazi guards men­ace pas­sen­gers in her train car. Every line of text and draw­ing has been care­ful­ly cho­sen to con­vey information.

After earn­ing her doc­tor­ate in physics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na, only the sec­ond woman ever to do so, Meit­ner seeks fur­ther pro­fes­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties in Berlin. There she begins a long col­lab­o­ra­tion with the chemist Otto Hahn. Hahn is one of many male sci­en­tists whose atti­tude toward female col­leagues ranges from unyield­ing prej­u­dice to rel­a­tive tol­er­ance. Even­tu­al­ly, Hahn wins a Nobel Prize for work to which Meit­ner made cru­cial con­tri­bu­tions. From the per­spec­tive of the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, the physicist’s con­stant hop­ing for recog­ni­tion seems trag­ic: She wor­ried that mak­ing a fuss would make her seem like a tem­pera­men­tal woman, when she didn’t want to be seen as a woman at all.” Soon, that hope turns to dis­il­lu­sion­ment, and final­ly to despair, as many Ger­man sci­en­tists do noth­ing to oppose anti­semitism under Nazi rule.

Each one of Moss’s graph­ic seg­ments enhances her nar­ra­tive, offer­ing a visu­al per­spec­tive of the sto­ry. Their titles are intrigu­ing and some­times irrev­er­ent: “‘Jew­ish Physics’ vs. Aryan Physics,’” A Talk with Hitler About Sci­ence,” and, in an allu­sion to Vir­ginia Woolf’s famous essay, A Lab of One’s Own.” Their humor serves to make unfa­mil­iar con­cepts, such as the con­nec­tion between mod­ern physics and Jews’ attacks on fas­cist world­views, acces­si­ble to young read­ers. Moss also recre­ates Meitner’s excite­ment about the sci­en­tif­ic method, as when the physi­cist, work­ing with her nephew Otto Frisch, final­ly grasps the core of their dis­cov­ery: that in nuclear fis­sion, the lost mass would be trans­formed into ener­gy.” Yet she is unable to accept the fact that this process can be used to design weapons.

His­to­ry is not mere­ly a back­drop for Moss’s account of Meitner’s career. The pro­found issues explored in the book include the con­flict between truth and mis­in­for­ma­tion, the dan­gers of racial and eth­nic hatred, tox­ic misog­y­ny, and the respon­si­bil­i­ty of intel­lec­tu­als to uphold moral val­ues. Moss’s inge­nu­ity offers a thor­ough­ly researched text inter­spersed with cap­ti­vat­ing images. Togeth­er, these ele­ments res­cue Lise Meit­ner from the very mar­gin­al­ized sta­tus, as a woman and a Jew, that com­pro­mised her goals. Here, she is restored to wholeness.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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