A NASTY TIME: Misogyny, mass extinction, science and friendship
I have a feeling that a certain knowledge of particle physics is essential in our common search for structure, how things and phenomena relate to each other. Perhaps such an endeavour is part of our genetic code. Unfortunately, it is not much I understand when I try to learn anything about particle physics, though I am maybe not as extraordinarily stupid as I assume I might be. The possibly greatest of all nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr, The Great Dane, declared in 1952 ”If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.” He also indicated that quantum physics it is a field that is far from being conclusively explored:
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature...
I'm far from being a nuclear physicist, and will never become one. The topic is furthermore a moving target, being constantly transformed. Sure it would be nice if I had the ability to understand higher mathematics, or if I could play an instrument. But, my inability to do so does not prevent me from speculating about how the universe might be constructed and operate, as well as I appreciate music, without being able to play anything, or even understand the fundamentals of music.
I have for a long time been fascinated by Lise Meitner, not only due to her pioneering activities or difficult fate, her constant struggle against misogyny and anti-Semitism, but also by photographs I've seen of her. I found her to be exceptionally beautiful. A tender, ethereal beauty, which appears to indicate sensitivity, intelligence and a certain distance.
Lise Meitner reminds me of a postcard with a portrait painted by Gustav Klimt, which I as a young man kept on my desk. The nineteen year old Gertha Felsöványi, another Viennese lady, apparently delicate and animated. Klimt painted her portrait in 1902, her name was then Gertha Löw and she was the daughter of the wealthy owner of a renowned sanatorium, where, among others, Gustav Mahler was treated and eventually died. After her father's death in 1907 Gertha took over the management of the sanatorium, which also functioned as a hotel and a meeting place for Vienna's intellectual elite.
In 1938, Gertha Felsöványi, who like Lise Meitner was a Jewess converted to Protestantism, was forced to leave her sanatorium and when she a year later escaped to the United States her portrait ended up with an illegitimate son of Gustav Klimt - Gustav Ucicky, who was a one of the Nazi era´s most successful directors of propaganda movies. Throughout his life, Ucicky collected works by his father, perhaps compensating for the insufficient father-son relationship of his childhood. Ucicky’s Klimt collection originally comprised ten paintings and over 15 drawings.
Considering what happened in 1938, it was not surprising that Gertha Felsöványi chose to leave Vienna. On March 12 that year, Germany annexed Austria without violence and to great enthusiasm expressed by the majority of the population.
In the mid-1990s, I met in New York the pianist Walter Hautzig, who was married to a friend of mine, the novelist Esther Hautzig. Walter told me then that he had been born in Vienna, but would never set his foot there again. When I asked why, Walter told me how he as a young man had visited the university and witnessed how Jewish students were brutally beaten. According to its statutes the University was forbidden to accept more than 10 percent of Jewish students, something that made them hopelessly disadvantaged when the anti-Semitic agitation became increasingly worse during the 1930s. The University of Vienna´s status as "free", meant among other things that police and military were forbidden to enter its premises. The Jewish students could thus be severely harassed without any intervention form authorities. One diversion of anti-Semitic students was to shove their Jewish classmates down the stairs. When the bloody and upset victims came out into the street they were arrested by the police, who by the Nazi hooligans were informed that they had been provoked by the Jews, and not vice versa. During the so-called Kristallnacht, which in Vienna actually lasted an entire day, November 10, 1938, Walter experienced how Jews, in front of cheering onlookers, were mercilessly beaten bloody. He was sixteen years old and decided that he at any cost had to leave the city.
Walter was an accomplished pianist and when Vienna shortly after the terrible incidents was visited by Emil Hauser, professor at the Conservatory of Music in Jerusalem, who was in search of a promising young pianist to bring with him to Palestine, Walter waited for the music professor at his hotel. When Emil Hauser, after several hours appeared, he explained that he did not have any time to listen to the young pianist. Nevertheless, the desperate Walter insisted on playing and forced himself into Hauser's taxi. Against all odds, Walter succeeded in persuading the celebrated musician to allow him to play for the guests in the salon he was going to.
At their arrival they were received by a distinguished party dressed company. Hauser pointed towards a grand piano and muttered curtly: Spiel! Play. Walter Hautzig gave his all and after Hauser had heard him play Beethoven´s Waldstein Sonata he exclaimed: "At any cost I will arrange that you are coming with me to Jerusalem!"
Walter stayed a year and a half in Palestine. Most of his relatives met their death at Buchenwald, but his parents managed to escape to Switzerland and eventually ended up in New York, where they were reunited with their son. After the War, Walter was invited to Oslo to play for survivors from concentration camps. On his journey back home on the Swedish America Line´s S/S Drottningholm, he met Esther Hautzig who had been born in Vilna, but spent her youth exiled to Siberia. Three years later they married.
Die Novemberpogrome, as the Kristallnacht was called in Vienna, probably since it for the most part took place on the day, more than 90 synagogues were burnt down, or blown up. Firefighters were often present, but their efforts were limited to ensuring that surrounding buildings were not ignited. Some ninety Jews were severely beaten, while 27 were killed and 6,547 arrested. Thousands of Jews were evicted from their homes and 4,000 shops were looted. When this occurred Lise Meitner was working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, where she since 1917 had been a professor at the Department of Physics.
Lise Meitner had ended up in Berlin after the world famous Marie Curie had rejected her application to work at her research laboratory in Paris, one of the few places that at that time accepted women researchers. In Berlin, the young and shy, but brilliant Lise Meitner had the good fortune to obtain Max Planck, discoverer of quantum mechanics, as patron and friend. Meitner impressed her colleagues and a young scientist, Otto Hahn, asked if they could join forces experimenting with radioactive radiation. The Institute's director, Nobel Prize winner Emil Fisher, did not want any women in his laboratories, "Their hairstyles constitute a danger in laboratory work." However, pressured by Planck, Fisher reluctantly gave permission to Meitner and Hahn to use a corner of the Institute´s maintenance workshop as their laboratory.
Over the years, mainly working with self-produced equipment, Hahn and Meitner succeeded in turning their cellar into one of the world's absolute centres for nuclear research. That Lise Meitner after a few years was appointed as professor of experimental physics was fairly unique in Europe, where women in most places did not even have access to university education and even less likely were able to become professors. Below we see, at the bottom right, Lise Meitner at a meeting of nuclear physicists in Copenhagen.
In 1873 Swedish universities allowed women to study languages, natural sciences and jurisprudence, though they were still banned from academic teaching positions. When Elsa Eschelsson in 1911 applied for a professorship in civil law at the Uppsala University, she was turned down by the male university board. The nine pages long rejection declared, among other reservations:
In our country we do not find any examples of a woman who has carried out innovative scientific work and whose employment as a professor at the University would have been an asset. Experience - here and abroad - suggests that female students on average are inferior to male ones [...] Generally speaking a woman apparently lacks the scientific imagination and research capacity required of a true scientist.
The stubborn resistance to Eschelsson´s professorship can probably be explained by the fact that she had established the notorious Academically Educated Women´s Association and that several male academics were alarmed by the threat of female competitors to coveted academic positions, for which – just as nowadays – there was within each university a constant and fierce battle. I remember how a renowned professor once told me, when I as a student representative had asked why the Board claimed that one of our female lecturers was a lousy teacher, when she in fact she was our best lecturer:
- Dear Lundius you are new to the University and I understand your concern. As you so correctly has pointed out, X does not yet hold a doctorate, but he is capable of doing things we older professors have neither the time nor the inclination to concern ourselves with. Your admired Doctor Y is admittedly more knowledgeable and a far better educator than X, but since we will benefit more from X´s services than hers, we are unfortunately forced to emphasize his excellence at her expense. When it comes to appointments and promotions, we cannot apply any human considerations.
Everything indicates that Elsa Eschelsson committed suicide during the night after the rejection of her application. It was only in 1923 that women gained the formal right to hold a teaching position at Swedish universities. In 1938 Nanna Schwarz became the first woman to take up a professorship at a Swedish state university (internal medicine at the Karolinska Institute). However, already in 1889 had Sonja Kovalevsky obtained a professorship at the Stockholm College, which at that time was not a Government institution and thus not considered to be a proper university. Kovalevsky became the world's first female mathematics professor. The first female professor at the Uppsala University was the geographer Gerd Enequist, who received her professorship in 1949. At the Lund University it took until 1965 when the historian Birgitta Odén became its first professor.
Knut Ångström, Professor of Physics at Uppsala University, offered in 1908 Eva von Bahr a position as researcher in physics. She had written a ground-breaking dissertation on how gases absorb infrared radiation, which have had significance for the understanding of the atmospheric effects of global warming. Under the condition that she would obtain permission to teach Eva von Bahr accepted the offer. Eva was a member of the Academically Educated Women´s Association and Ångström's proposal came shortly after Elsa Eschelsson´s suicide. Professor Ångström gave Eva a prestigious teaching position, but after his death two years later Ångström´s successor prohibited Eva from instructing male students. A year after that she left Uppsala and went to Germany, where she met Lise Meitner in Berlin.
The two women immediately became good friends. Yes, more than that - they shared their scientific interests and had similar experiences as solitary, ingenious physicists within a predominantly male scientific community. They were almost the same age, came from a wealthy background with many siblings, had at an early age lost their beloved fathers and both were single. Eva had due to her gender been denied an academic career, while Lise had for more than five years worked for free at her institution, despite the fact that she was already an internationally renowned physicist. The meeting was tumultuous for both women. They talked incessantly about their shared passion for physics, their vulnerability and loneliness they had encountered as women in a male environment and their passion for music and culture. Eva wrote to her mother that her friendship with Lise Meitner made her turn down research proposals from other institutions than the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, where Max Planck had offered her a tenure. She described Lise as a soulmate: “She is so sweet and extraordinarily gifted."
Nevertheless, in the autumn of 1912 Eva von Bahr returned to Uppsala University to once again take up a teaching position there. Apparently the influx of students has been higher than expected and Eva had been called in due to the lack of skilled lecturers, she was probably also contacted since the unprejudiced Wilhelm Oseen from Lund University recently had appointed professor of mechanics and mathematical physics in Uppsala. Professor Oseen became a friend for life for both Eva von Bahr and Lise Meitner. However, after New Year 1913 Eva von Bahr was back in Berlin and moved in with Lise Meitner.
In her fascinating and well-written book Kärlek och kärnfysik, Love and Nuclear Physics, the Swedish designer and author Hedvig Hedqvist writes about the lifelong and intense relationship between Eva and Lise. Eva von Bahr was the younger sister of Hedvig Hedqvist´s grandmother and as a child Hedvig knew both Eva and her friend Lise Meitner. After her mother's death in 1988 Hedvig Hedqvist found among her papers an unopened package from Eva von Bahr. It turned out to contain a vast amount of letters that Lise Meitner over the years had written to her Swedish friend. These letters, together with an extensive collection of letters and documents Hedvig Hedqvist found among Lise Meitner's papers in the Churchill Archive Centre in Cambridge, form the backbone of her intriguing tale about love, nuclear physics and two extraordinary women. Lise Meitner´s letter do self-consciously and passionately tell about the longing, sorrows and triumphs of one the Western World´s most influential scientists. Had Lise Meitner not been a woman and a Jewess, her life would have been considerably easier and probably happier. Nevertheless, the letters also radiate gratitude for the support of close friends, an unyielding enthusiasm for nuclear physics and the joy of making new discoveries.
The so called Humanism of the Renaissance has been portrayed as a momentous time when human thinking was profoundly shaken. Intellectual elites within wealthy trading cities criticized the subjugation of dominant claims to power. They read in Greek and Latin ancient writers and assumed that they in those texts encountered an insightful vision of the world and its inhabitants. The formerly predominant ideology, which they considered as having been characterised by exaggerated humility, introspection and passivity, began to be labelled as the "Middle Ages," a time of intellectual darkness between the brilliant Antiquity and a "New Age".
Renaissance scholars considered philosophers and writers of ancient Greek and Rome as sharp-witted men confident about individuals´ ability to assess the world on the basis of their sensory impressions. They now wanted to interpret the world with similar systematic methods by using observation, experimentation and logical reasoning. The Renaisssance was a tumultuous time, which unfortunately was followed by mass slaughter of dissidents during brutal religious wars and rebellions culminating in the Thirty Years War, which killed approximately between 20 and 40 percent of the German population, depending on the affected areas. As an example, Prussia lost two-thirds of its population. The following Peace of Westphalia in 1648 completely reshaped the map of Europe.
It has justifiably been claimed that the time between the mid-1800s and in particular the beginning of the1900s may be compared to the Renaissance explosion of insights and creativity. Art, philosophy and science underwent an amazing and exciting transformation. I come to think about the earthquakes that currently are shaking Italy. Ground swells can be felt here in Rome, but the epicentre has generally remained around and in the town of Norcia, a few miles to the north. Likewise, the Renaissance found its most influential epicentre in northern Italy, but its effects were felt in the whole of Europe and even spread, for better and worse, around the world through the discovery of America and increased European contacts with Africa and Asia.
It has been claimed that beginning the beginning of the last century, scientific revolution found its epicentre in Germany, specifically in Berlin and especially at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry where a critical mass of brilliant researchers gathered. Like the Renaissance this fervent, enthusiastic activity resulted in amazing discoveries and insights, but was nevertheless followed by horrific mass slaughter. Some of the seeds to Europe's catastrophic civil wars of 1914 - 1918 and 1939 - 1945, which spread around the world and received their dreadful end point with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was to be found in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry.
To give a picture of Germany's significance for modern science it may suffice to mention some Nobel Prize winners between 1901 and 1921 - Wilhelm Röntgen discoverer of X-ray radiation, Emil von Behring for serum therapy, Adolf von Beyer for ground breaking discoveries in organic chemistry and contributions to theoretical chemistry, Wihelm Ostwald for his work on catalysis, chemical equilibria and reaction velocities, Philipp Lenard for his studies of cathodic rays, Max von Laue for the diffraction of X-rays by crystals, Max Planck for the discovery of quantum mechanics, Fritz Haber for his to method to synthesize ammonium from nitrogen and hydrogen gases, Walther Nernst for his calculations of chemical affinity as embodied in the third law of thermodynamics and, of course, Albert Einstein.
German research was mainly focused on mechanics, mathematics and empiricism, thus it appeared to have left behind the age-old link between philosophy/religion and science. Natural science was intimately connected with state-supported industrial production of dyes, drugs (such as aspirin and salvarsan), photographic film, explosives, fertilizers and, not the least, an advanced production of steel and iron, as well as thriving, highly sophisticated weapons manufacturing. Huge industrial plants were built by Friedrich Krupp AG and the gigantic conglomerate IG Farben (Bayer, BASF, Agfa, Hoechst, Casella and Kalle). Below is the board for IG Farben in 1926 and the conglomerate´s huge plant for the manufacturing of synthetic rubber in Auschwitz III (Monowitz-Buna), 1943- 1945.
While Europe approached the gory conflict that was to be kicked off in 1914, German research was increasingly becoming linked to war preparations. Enthusiasm for Germany's astonishing research results was tinged with chauvinism and a sense of a growing threat from the outside world. Even a convinced pacifist like Lise Meitner became infected by a feeling that Germany was threatened by jealous nations, a view which soiled the deep friendship, even love, between Lise and Eva von Bahr. However, love between the two women endured and Lise Meitner gradually realized that it had been a mistake to fall into the patriotic trap. Already by the outbreak of the war, she had refused to sign a manifesto called Die Kulturwelt! Ein Aufruf! World Culture! A Wake-up Call! which had been endorsed by ninety-three of Germany's top scientists, among them Nobel Prize winners like Wilhelm Röntgen, Emil Fischer, Paul Ehrlich, Richard Willstätter, Wilhelm Ostwald, Walther Nernst and Fritz Haber:
We do not support German militarism [but] German civilization would long since have disappeared if it had not been for the fact that the German Army and the people had been an undivided unit.
This manifesto was in agreement with the Zeitgeist. Thomas Mann considered the War to be an opportunity to rise above your own limitations and purge your soul from all the influence of materialism and nihilism transmitted by the intellectuals who had thrived in "this terrible, peaceful world". The poet Rainer Maria Rilke praised the War as "God's resurrection. The God of the masses!" The influential poet Stefan George wrote:
Tens of thousands must perish in this holy madness
Tens of thousands will perish in this sacred plague
Tens of thousands - in this Holy War!
The brilliant sociolgist ax Weber was enthusiastic: "Whatever the outcome, this war is great and wonderful." For the Jewish mystic Martin Buber, the War could be likened to a holy spring, a wonderful purification of mankind through violence. However, all this enthusiasm soon evaporated and many were instead overtaken by shame and bitter disappointment.
The eccentric, intellectual, Jewish millionaire Walther Ratenhau, whose father was a prominent Jewish business man, owner of Edison's German patent and thus dominating the entire German electrical industry, had initially been opposed to the War. However, due to patriotic reasons he warned, immediately after the outbreak of the War, that the German Government, due to its inadequate, financial planning, would be forced to surrender after just a few months. Political leaders listened to Rathenau´s warnings and he was eventually appointed General and put in charge of a newly established unit under the Ministry of War and assigned to reorganize the entire German economy. Rathenau succeeded beyond expectations. If he had not managed to mobilize a powerful, highly skilled group of scientists, economists and administrators, Germany would, just as he had predicted, have lost the War after only a few months. One of Ratenhaus´s actions was to support and involve researchers from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute.
Fritz Haber, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918, was one of the Institute's most distinguished scientists. A Prussian super patriot. With his pince-nez, straight posture, mensure scare, eternal cigar and a habit to appear in uniform made his colleagues call him das Geheimrat, The Privy Councillor. Despite his military exterior, strict Lutheranism and boundless patriotism, Haber did not deny his Jewish ancestry, his interest in music and poetry. He was furthermore a valued and eloquent comrade, as well as a workaholic of great proportions, with a vast and solid knowledge in the humanities and natural sciences. Haber had managed to produce ammonia on an industrial scale by synthesising hydrogen and nitrogen from the air. His discovery was decisive for the production of fertilizers and explosives. Previously, the production of fertilizers and saltpetre for explosives had been entirely dependent on imports of Chilean guano, bird droppings, but the war put an end to that trade and accordingly, in a very short time, Ratheanu succeeded to build up an impressive domestic production of explosives, which in 1916 amounted to 300 million tonnes. At the same time large amounts of fertilizers were churned out, resulting in a sharp increase in the German food production.
Fritz Haber was upset by the German armies being bogged down in Flanders´s mud. The losses and terrifying war injuries among young German soldiers spread despair in German public opinion. Haber felt that not only would the use of poison gas turn the war to Germans' advantage. Moreover, according to him, death by gas was gentler than any other lethal warfare. A uniformed unit under his command, in which scientists from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute had been turned into officers, among them Lise Meitner's friend and colleague Otto Hahn, began under Haber's leadership to research, produce and use gas along both the western and eastern fronts.
At five o'clock on the morning of the 22nd of April 1915, Haber´s Thirty Sixth Pioneer Company had along the German front line at Ypres in Flanders set up 5,370 cylinders of chlorine gas in liquid form. When the wind direction was found to be beneficial, the gas was released and a six kilometres long and nine hundred meters deep yellow gas cloud drifted in over the French positions, surprising the Algerian troops placed there. The unprotected soldiers choked to death in their trenches or fled in terror. Equipped with primitive gas masks, German troops advanced some twenty meters and found dead Algerians with yellow mucus running from mouths and noses. When the gas cloud had eased they walked further and discovered that all trenches in front of them had been abandoned, or filled with corpses.
A week later, Haber returned to Berlin, where he became thoroughly celebrated for his decisive actions by Ypres. Ten days after the gas attack, Fritz Haber had a violent argument with his wife, the associate professor of chemistry Clara Immerwahr, after the quarrel she ran into the garden and shot herself in the chest with her husband's service pistol. It was well-known that she was appalled by her husband´s commitment to the use of lethal gas. The day after his wife's suicide Haber went the eastern front to spread his gas there as well.
Together with her good friend Albert Einstein Lise Meitner refused to have anything to do with research that she assumed supported the war effort. The easy-going, humorous and brave Einstein did together with a few colleagues sign a manifesto in response to the other scientists' support for Germany's declaration of war, denying that violence could solve anything. Einstein was both tremendously admired and immensely detested. Mobs could often be found outside his workplace or home, shouting that "the filthy Jew deserved to have his throat cut." When a Working Committee of German Natural Philosophers rented Belin´s concert hall for a series of lectures on the "Einstein Hoax", Einstein sat in a theatre box, laughing out loud and clapping his hands at the absurd attacks.
Nevertheless, Einstein was of course hurt by of all the fierce attacks and despite the strong support of the majority of his colleagues he did not feel safe in Germany. One of his most faithful friends was strangely enough Fritz Haber, who had interceded for and helped Einstein during the marital crisis with his first wife. Einstein was both amused and outraged by Haber´s exaggerated chauvinism, but managed in the name of their close friendship to accept it.
Lise Meitner was significantly more patriotic than Einstein even though she suffered from war´s ruthlessness. She avoided Haber and other warmongers, but then the sensitive and kind Hahn told her about the horrors of lethal gas and asked her if she thought it was OK if he relinquished his participation all together, she wrote him:
Of course I can understand your concerns, you are more than excused for being an "opportunist". First of all, you were never asked, but commanded to do what you are currently doing and in addition - if you had refused there would always be another one ready to take your place. Above all, all the means we have at our disposal to end this terrible war are justified.
Eva von Bahr, who after a few years had left Germany to take care of her sick mother, lingered in Sweden in spite of Lise Meitner's heartfelt entreaties that she would come back. Lise longed to be with Eve at the same time as she worried that her friend would lose her great commitment to the development of nuclear physics. Lise had in Eva found a female sibling soul with whom she could share everything, especially her great interest in natural sciences. One problem in their uninterrupted communication was however the fact that Eva could not share Lise's identification with Germany, while Lise could not understand Eva's increasing interest in religion, especially Catholicism, which she later converted to. While Lise wanted Eva to come to Berlin, Eve wanted Lise to come to Sweden, but she also understood what kept Lise in Berlin.
Lise Meitner would never get the same support and understanding from fellow researchers in Sweden, with their lack of knowledge of particle physics, as well as the stinginess a majority of Swedish scientists demonstrated towards their few female colleagues. In Berlin Lise had sympathetic and genial friends. Colleagues like Planck, Einstein and Hahn, as well as many others open minded and enlightened men and women, but there were also a group of insidious anti-Semites within the Institute.
The anti-Semitic and influential Nobel laureates Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark spread their poisonous slander, characterising anti-Nazis like Max von Laue, Otto Hahn and not least the mighty Max Planck as “white Jews”. The latter was forced to walk a difficult tightrope to protect his Jewish employees. It has been told how difficult Planck had to give the Hitler greeting or exclaim “Heil Hitler!”, though he forced himself to do it. Planck's opinions were well known, one of his sons were later executed for taking part in the conspiracy against Hitler, and his younger brother had then been killed on the eastern front. Einstein, who was forced to leave Germany in 1932, was offended by German attitudes in general, claiming that most of them were actually an unpleasant bunch, though he added that Planck was sixty percent decent and von Laue a hundred percent.
To his great surprise Fritz Haber also came to suffer from anti-Semitism, despite the great services he had made his beloved fatherland. Haber's poison gas had been found to be not so fatal and critical to the outcome of war as he first had hoped. He continued to develop increasingly efficient lethal gases, among them the infamous pesticide Zyklon B, hydrogen cyanide that was successfully put in use to protect Germany's grain stocks and later to kill innocent people, including in the gas chambers of Auschwitz (the extermination camps of Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibór used lethal exhaust fumes from large combustion engines).
Germany's enemies had gradually constructed more efficient gas masks and eventually applied poisonous gas to a greater extent than the Germans. Although hundreds of thousands of people died from poison gases, Haber´s discoveries also saved millions from starvation. Someone has figured out that the fact that the world´s population in 2000 had reached 6 trillion, instead of a previously estimated 3.6 trillion, was largely due to a staggering increase in food production, mainly due to the use of fertilizers and pesticides that had been developed by Haber.
On 7 April 1933, two months after Hitler came to power a Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which meant that all "non-Aryans" in the public service were dismissed. Initially the law excluded veterans who had served at the front, but when Hindenburg died on 2nd of August 1934 this clause was immediately removed. When Fritz Haber arrived at work at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, he was rebuffed by the doorkeeper with the words: "The Jew Haber is not welcome here."
When Haber realized his precarious situation he approached Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner. However, they were resentful due to his former exaggerated patriotism and experimentation with lethal. Max Planck made a desperate attempt to save his friend and colleague. He obtained an audience with Hitler trying get the Führer´s assurance that Jewish scholars would be spared from the anti-Semitic measures. Planck later described the strange meeting. Hitler was galled by his rabid hatred of Jews. In an effort to appear as partially agreeing with the lunatic´s crazed opinions Planck tried to coax him:
"But surely there are all kinds of Jews, some valuable for mankind and others worthless, and among the first old families with the best German culture, and that distinction must be made". To which Hitler responded: "That is not true. A Jew is a Jew; all Jews cling to each other like leeches. Where there is one Jew other Jews of all sorts immediately gather."
Planck objected that it would be a form of self-mutilation if "valuable" Jews emigrated from Germany and that it would only benefit the enemies of the fatherland. Hitler began rambling incoherently, faster and faster. He slapped his knee with a loud bang and shouted: “People say that I suffer from a weakness of nerves. That is slander. I have nerves of steel." Planck assumed that the Führer suffered from some form of mental collapse: “I had no choice except to fall silent and leave.”
Lise Meitner was Jewish, though at first her Austrian citizenship protected her from dismissal. Why did she not leave? Di she not see or experience any anti-Semitism? Was she unaware of the oppression all around her? Of course she was, but where could she go? A single, Jewish physicist, who furthermore was a woman, was not welcome everywhere and university institutions in England, France and the United States were already filled with ingenious, male refugees from Nazi and Fascist regimes. Letters from her dear friend Eva in Sweden were becoming increasingly scarce. Eva had married and left nuclear research behind. Eva von Bahr Bergius now worked at Folk High School, an institution commonly found in Nordic countries, as well as in Germany, generally their courses do not grant academic degrees though they maintain high standards and are often considered as a step in that direction. Eva also felt obliged to care for her husband Nils, who was considered to suffer from “weak nerves”.
Admittedly, Lise Meitner was welcome to her friend and father figure Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, but even that was an unsafe place for a Jew. In Berlin, she had her laboratory and was supported by men like Planck, von Laue and Hahn. Lise´s and Hahn's research on alpha particles effect on beryllium, lithium and boron was exciting, successful and internationally acclaimed. Lise Meitner isolated herself from an increasingly threatening environment and buried herself in work.
When the Nazis in 1938 annexed Austria to their expanding empire Lise Meitner´s situation became untenable, she had to escape. With help from her friends she was able to enter illegally in the Netherlands from where she could take herself to Eva von Bahr Bergius in Sweden. Niels Bohr had obtained a promise from Professor Manne Siegbahn that he would receive the world-famous researcher at its newly opened Research Institute for Physics in Stockholm. However, Lise Meitner was not received by any open arms. Siegbahn probably considered the sagacious woman to be a threatening competitor for coveted funds. She assigned a desk, but no assistant, nor any necessary laboratory equipment. Siegbahn was not interested in neither her salary, nor welfare.
Professors Oseen and Bohr, who were well aware of Lise's genius, tried in vain to influence the niggardly Siegbahn and approached the Nobel Committee to ensure that Meitner obtained a sensible salary, as well as the support she needed for her research. Unfortunately, not much support was provided from those quarters, even if Lise shortly after her arrival in Sweden made a discovery that would change the world.
Colleagues in Berlin kept in touch with Lise Meitner. In all secrecy and often in code, they told her about their research and its progress. After five months in Sweden, Lise celebrated Christmas together with her nephew Otto Frisch, also a physicist working at the Bohr Institute in Copenhagen. They spent the holidays with Eva von Bahr and her husband. Just before her arrival to the coastal town of Kungälv. Lise had received a letter from Otto Hahn in which he excitedly told her that when he and his assistant had irradiated uranium with neutrons a different element had been created - barium. How come? Hahn searched in vain for an explanation, he could not do without his sidekick Lise Meitner.
When Lise during the morning of Christmas Eve morning plodded through the snow beside his skiing nephew, she arrived at the right solution. While being bombarded with neutrons the uranium atom, the heaviest one in the periodic table, had embraced a neutron, similar to the process when a drop of water by absorbing more water becomes so heavy that it divides. Strong cohesive forces in the uranium nucleus had been disturbed and unbalanced. The atomic nucleus, which until then had been considered indivisible, had been split in two!
Lise and her nephew sat down on a fallen tree trunk. They could all the necessary formulas by heart and on a piece of paper they began to make calculations, which apparently proved that the atom had really been. They continued calculating at Lise´s hotel room and when they came to celebrate Christmas at Eva´s house they could tell her that they had found the origin of nuclear power! They announced their discovery to Niels Bohr, but he was out on the Atlantic on his way to the US and was not immediately reached by the shattering news.
When Bohr finally arrived at port, Meitner's discovery spread like wildfire among the scientific community. Unfortunately had Hahn and his colleague Strassmann had time to publish their incomplete observations, before Lise announced her definite proofs that a nuclear fission had occurred. For the uninitiated Hahn thus came to appear as the original discoverer of nuclear fission. Since Meitner was Jewish and therefore forbidden to cooperate with Hahn, he could in his article not even mention her name. When Meitner and Frisch were able to publish their discoveries and calculations outside of Germany, it was a few weeks after Hahn's discovery had been cabled out across the world.
Did Lise Meitner realize that she found the principle for the development of a ghastly weapon of mass destruction? Probably, but it is not certain that she realized the possibility for such a development, at least not that it could be realized so quickly. What interested her was the solution to a scientific problem she and Otto Hahn had struggled with for years. When the eminent physicist Leo Szilárd on July 16, 1938 visited Einstein in his vacation home on Long Island outside New York and told him that Meitner's discovery was the prerequisite for the production of a nuclear bomb, Einstein exclaimed: “Ich habe nie daran gedacht! I never thought of that.”
The Hungarian-born Jew Leo Szilárd had as a German citizen been forced into exile in 1933. The same year he and the Italian scientist Enrico Fermi took out a patent for the nuclear reactor. Szilárd had early recognized the principle and the danger of nuclear fission, but did not find out any element that could be used. When he heard the news of Meitner and Hahn's discovery, Szilárd was terrified and contacted a lot of colleagues, wondering if they could help him to keep the devastating results secret. No one listened to him. Then Szilárd began to worry about the possibility that the Nazis would be able to produce a nuclear bomb. As a Jew Szilárd had personal experience of their ruthlessness and brutality - they would not hesitate to use such a terrible weapon. The majority of the most prominent nuclear physicists were, after all, Germans and two of the foremost ones - Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg were still active in research supported by the Nazi regime.
According to Szilárd the only way to stop the Nazis from producing and using a nuclear bomb was if the Allies could gather as many prominent nuclear physicist as possible and with their help beat the Nazis in the race to manufacture a bomb. Scilárd managed to get support for his idea from several of the leading nuclear physicists and the US government became convinced about the necessity to invest considerable resources in the production of a nuclear bomb. Among Szilárd´s supporters were the sharpest of all nuclear physicists - Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Einstein never participated actively in any bomb preparations, though Bohr who was Jewish and had to flee from Denmark eventually went to the US to share his expertise. Lise Meitner was asked to come along, but refused to participate in any project that meant that nuclear power would be used for mass killing.
Almost all Lise Meitner male colleagues received the Nobel Prize. She was nominated more than 15 times, by various highly qualified nuclear physicists. From 1929 and onwards Max Planck nominated her every year, and he was followed by Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Lise Meitner used to call Planck and Bohr her "two wonderful fathers". In 1945, the Nobel Committee decided to award Otto Hahn Nobel Prize for the discovery of nuclear fission. An injustice to Lise Meitner, who was the one who actually had solved the problem, after many years of intensive cooperation with Hahn, with whom she was not even allowed to share the fame.
Why was that? Apparently low among Manne Siegbahn behind injustice. He was well aware that he behaved petty and unfair to Meitner. A Nobel Prize would make his behaviour worse light. In addition, a Nobel Prize to Meitner could mean that she required more funds from the cake he wanted for himself. Minutes from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences shows that the former Nobel Prize winners Manne Siegbahn and The Svedberg belittled Meitner effort - she had, after all, had not been present when Hahn and his aides managed to create barium from uranium. Hahn could not explain the process and that Meitner was not present because she had to flee from Germany, was not mentioned in the context.
She did not show it outwardly, but Lise Meitner was hurt by the fact that only Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize and thus was able to bask in the international credit for their joint discovery. She wrote to her friend Eva:
I find it hurtful that Hahn in not a single one of his interviews has mentioned our 30-years long partnership. His motives are complicated, to say the least. He is convinced that Germany has been treated unfairly, even more so – he pushes away the past. His only thought is to speak for Germany. And I am a part of his repressed past.
Recognition finally came to Lise Meitner. In 1947, she left the Siegbahn institute and had a new laboratory was created specifically for her by the Swedish Atomic Energy Commission and she became a Swedish citizen in 1949. In 1960, she moved to the UK where most of her relatives were, although she continued working part-time and giving lectures. In England, she was a much greater celebrity than in Sweden. She died in 1966 and was buried in Hampshire beside his beloved brother Walter, who like her was a chemist. Her brother had to her great grief and despair died two years before her. On her tombstone her nephew Otto Frisch had engraved: " Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity."
Lise Meitner's life can be considered as one symbol of many of a century marked by the oppression of women, anti-Semitism, war, academic pride, machismo and nuclear threat. Nevertheless, she was an upright person, a true friend to her friends and has for better and worse contributed to a great scientific adventure that has transformed our lives and thinking. A very special woman.
Together with a team of nuclear scientists and technicians Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilárd designed a nuclear reactor in a rock cavern under two football fields by the University of Chicago. The reactor consisted of 45,000 graphite blocks, weighing 360 tons and serving as a “moderator”, meaning that it would slow down the speed of neutrons sent to it from 5.4 tons of uranium metal and 45 tons of uranium oxide. In accordance with Meitner's discovery of nuclear fission the process resulted in a "self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction" proving that it would be possible to create a nuclear bomb. Leo Szilárd later described what happened during that afternoon in December 2, 1942:
All we had to do was lean back, turn a switch and watch a screen of a television tube. If flashes of light appeared on the screen it would mean that liberation of atomic energy would take place in our lifetime. We turned the switch, saw the flashes — we watched for about five minutes — then switched everything off and went home. That night I knew the world was headed for trouble.
The process was admittedly somewhat more complicated and the participants in the experiment did not go home after the experiment had finished at four o´clock in the afternoon, first they celebrated the triumph with Chianti wine, which they drank from paper cups.
The demon was unleashed and it is still with us. The horrifying threat of a nuclear disaster is far from over. Humanity has about 15,000 nuclear weapons, thousands of which are on constant alert. Every nuclear country is upgrading its nuclear arsenal and nuclear proliferation will continue, combined with the possibility of nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear war. The consequences of one single nuclear bomb will be horrific and unfathomable. Currently such a bomb can be carried in a backpack.
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