The Woman Who Split the Atom by Marissa Moss
Brilliant physicist Lise Meitner, overlooked by history, receives her due in this well-written and -illustrated biography.
The Woman Who Split the Atom: The Life of Lise Meitner by Marissa Moss. Abrams, 2022, 199 pages + timeline, glossary, bibliography, and index.
Reading Level: Middle Grades, ages 10-12
Recommended for: ages 10-15
“Women of science” was not a feature of late-century Vienna, but Lise Meitner was blessed by both parents, who encouraged her to follow her interests. Those interests were, almost exclusively, physics and math—she even slept with a math book under her pillow! Though Austria was not open to women seeking high education, Meitner’s outstanding gifts helped her become the first woman at the University of Vienna, majoring in physics. Neighboring Germany offered more opportunity for women to pursue a career in science, so in she moved to Berlin. She had already made a name for herself through published papers journals when she met Dr. Otto Hahn, who wanted to work with her on radioactivity. The two formed a partnership “better than marriage” that lasted decades and ended unhappily—worse than divorce.
Lise Meitner, largely overlooked by history, came on the scene during the scientific revolution of the early 20th century, at the birth of special and general relativity, quantum physics, and nuclear fission. She didn’t “split the atom” herself; what she did was supply the correct interpretation of Otto Hahn’s experiments in 1938. She didn’t receive the recognition she deserved, partly because she was a woman but mostly because she was Jewish at the height of Nazi oppression. She could easily have died in a concentration camp were it not for the dedicated efforts of colleagues and admirers to get her out of Germany. Even after, she wandered from one temporary position to another until her retirement in Sweden.
Her biography is illustrated by the author’s graphic-novel depictions of historical events and characters. These break up the narrative in an attractive and interesting format, though I would have liked more detailed illustrations and descriptions of the scientific processes. But this is mainly a human story, as science is a human pursuit (and scientists only human). Meitner learned this early, in her university classes under Professor Ludwig Boltzmann: “science pretended to be objective but was often shaped by human bias.” As recalled by her nephew, “Boltzmann gave her the vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth.” It was a vision she faithfully followed in spite of disappointment, disrespect, and danger.
Overall Rating: 4 (Out of 5)
Worldview/moral value: 3.5Artistic/literary value: 4.5
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Also at Redeemed Reader:
Review: We loved this biography of another math-talented lady during World War II: The Woman All Spies Fear. Steve Sheinkin’s Bomb: The Race to Build–and Steal–the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon is the fascinating story of how Lise Meitner’s discovery was put to use (much to her dismay).Reviews: More science biographies that entertain and enhance, of Albert Einstein and Isaac NewtonFor a fuller–though far from complete–explanation of practical applications of cutting-edge physics, see our reviews of The Way Things Work Now and Science Ideas in 30 Seconds.
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