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'A physicist who never lost her humanity'

75 years post-Hiroshima, Jewish ‘mother of the bomb’ inspires spy thriller novel

Physicist Lise Meitner discovered nuclear fission soon after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938, but Nobel Prize was given to a man as she saw her breakthrough used in ways she opposed

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, 1912 (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)
    Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, 1912 (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)
  • At a conference in 1937, Meitner shares the front row with (left to right) Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern and Rudolf Ladenburg; Hilde Levi is the only other woman in the room. (Friedrich Hund via WikimediaCommons)
    At a conference in 1937, Meitner shares the front row with (left to right) Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern and Rudolf Ladenburg; Hilde Levi is the only other woman in the room. (Friedrich Hund via WikimediaCommons)
  • Chemist Lise Meitner with students (Sue Jones Swisher, Rosalie Hoyt and Danna Pearson McDonough) on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College. April 1959. (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)
    Chemist Lise Meitner with students (Sue Jones Swisher, Rosalie Hoyt and Danna Pearson McDonough) on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College. April 1959. (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)

German scientist Otto Hahn won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of nuclear fission.

However, Hahn wasn’t alone in making the discovery. The credit should have also gone to his longtime research colleague, physicist Dr. Lise Meitner. It was yet another example of the Matilda Effect, a bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists whose work is attributed to male colleagues.

Meitner and Hahn had worked together since 1935 with chemist Fritz Straßmann to produce transuranics (very heavy artificial elements) by bombarding uranium with neutrons.

The Austrian-born Meitner was forced to flee Nazi Germany and her position at Berlin’s Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in 1938, ending up in Stockholm, Sweden. Meitner, who was born to a Jewish family, converted to Lutheranism in 1908 and is buried in a churchyard in Hampshire, England. However, Meitner’s conversion did not prevent the Nazis from persecuting her because of her Jewish origins.

Hahn corresponded with Meitner about ongoing experiments, and it was Meitner and her physicist nephew Otto Robert Frisch who recognized in early 1939 that the nucleus of an atom had been split in two. The two subsequently devised a further experiment to confirm and measure the reaction.

The Former Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin. The building was badly damaged during WWII. It was restored and became part of the Free University of Berlin in 1948. It was renamed the Otto Hahn Building in 1956, and the Hahn-Meitner Building in 2010. (Fridolin freudenfett [Peter Kuley] via WikimediaCommons)
Hahn and Straßmann published the findings, and word got out quickly among scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. Not long after, refugee physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard warned US president Franklin Roosevelt that Germany might try to build a nuclear bomb. In response, Roosevelt ordered American scientists and the military to advance nuclear research, ultimately resulting in the creation of the top-secret Manhattan Project in August 1942.

This year — the 75th anniversary of the dropping of the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that brought about the end of World War II — Hollywood screenwriter and director Jan Eliasberg has published a spy thriller novel based on Meitner’s story. The fast-paced “Hannah’s War,” is the result of Eliasberg’s years-long deep dive into Meitner’s biography and the race for the atomic bomb.

Eliasberg told The Times of Israel in a recent interview that she prides herself on being a feminist and knowing women’s history. She was therefore  surprised to have heard nothing of Meitner until she happened upon The New York Times front page report on the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Below the fold, there was a paragraph stating that the key component that allowed the Allies to develop the bomb was brought to the Allies by a female, “non-Aryan” (in other words, Jewish) physicist.

Jan Eliasberg (Courtesy)

Eliasberg had no idea who this unnamed woman was, but she was determined to find out. She also wanted to learn more about her connection to the Manhattan Project.

“I immediately thought I must find this woman, because I knew that because of her place in history, she must have an amazing story. I even had a sense that the story would have something to do with her life in Germany, her discovery of the bomb and its potential, and then what happened after the fact — the moral implications of it,” Eliasberg.

Although Eliasberg is known for writing scripts, she felt strongly about turning Meitner’s story into a novel. Knowing how hard it is to get a movie made, she didn’t want to take the chance.

“I couldn’t bear to write a movie script that would sit on the shelf. Here’s a woman who has been neglected, erased from history, and I’m trying to shine a spotlight on her. The idea that I would write all this and it would never see the light of day was just so painful to me,” Eliasberg said.

At a conference in 1937, Meitner shares the front row with (left to right) Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Otto Stern and Rudolf Ladenburg; Hilde Levi is the only other woman in the room. (Friedrich Hund via WikimediaCommons)

“And I also think that fiction is a happier home for a very talented, not straight-forward or run-of-the-mill woman [like Meitner]. I had an instinct that if I could write the novel well, that it would have a better chance of being the story I wanted to write,” she added.

Eliasberg, who read Meitner’s published diaries and letters, related strongly to the physicist. As a woman in Hollywood, Eliasberg was familiar with being an outsider, a woman in a man’s world.

Physicists and chemists in Berlin in 1920. Front row, left to right: Hertha Sponer, Albert Einstein, Ingrid Franck, James Franck, Lise Meitner, Fritz Haber, and Otto Hahn. Back row, left to right: Walter Grotrian, Wilhelm Westphal, Otto von Baeyer, Peter Pringsheim and Gustav Hertz. (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)

“Sometimes as a woman you end up feeling so grateful for being able to do the work, that you don’t even care about the cash and prizes. It takes so much energy to do the thing you are passionate about and love. It’s exhausting just getting to where you want to go,” she said.

Eliasberg was moved, but not surprised, by Meitner’s poignant diary entry in which she expressed her disappointment that Hahn did not even mention her in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Real life was stranger than fiction

In the novel, Eliasberg turns Meitner into protagonist Dr. Hannah Weiss. Eliasberg makes her younger, and takes her beyond her discovery of nuclear fission in Europe to J. Robert Oppenheimer‘s brilliant team in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In reality, Meitner was never among those who invented the first atomic “gadget,” as Oppenheimer called it. In fact, she hated it when Einstein dubbed her “the mother of the bomb,” and refused repeated invitations to join the other scientists on the Manhattan Project.

“I recognized that when Lise Meitner left Germany, her story essentially ended. I never set out to tell her biography. That was not my intention. I wanted to tell a fictional story,” Eliasberg explained.

What most intrigued the author was the question of what happens when the military takes over pure science. This is what happened when the Nazi regime took control of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute’s work, and what happened in the US. In the latter, it was done more subtly, but it happened nonetheless.

Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer Oppenheimer and Colonel Leslie Grove at the remains of the Trinity test site in September 1945, two months after the test blast and just after the end of World War II. (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)

“I deliberately wanted Hannah to be in Los Alamos. I thought it would be  amazing to have a character who witnessed it happen once see it happen again,” Eliasberg said.

Although there was an intense race between the US and Germany to get the bomb, it turned out that the Germans were never even close. Eliasberg took advantage of the mystery surrounding this German  lag to fashion a spy thriller that combines historical elements with fictional ones.

Oppenheimer and General Leslie R. Groves, the military director of the Manhattan Project appear in the novel, while other characters are either based on historical characters (like Dr. Hannah Weiss), or completely fictional.

In the latter category is Major Jack Delaney, a rising star in military intelligence searching for a Nazi spy at Los Alamos. He targets Hannah Weiss as the prime suspect, and ends up discovering the secrets she is hiding. And in a twist, Hannah learns that her interrogator has secrets of his own.

In her research, Eliasberg read Ruth Lewin Sime’s biography, “Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics.” She also read definitive histories such as “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes, and Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History Of The German Bomb” by Thomas Powers.

‘Hannah’s War’ by Jan Eliasberg (Back Bay Books)

While these works grounded “Hannah’s War,” Eliasberg allowed herself to go where she wanted to with the story — within limits.

“My rule with fiction, is that I am always in favor of a better story so long as it doesn’t violate possibility,” she said.

For example, it was important to Eliasberg that Hannah have a strong Jewish identity and come from an observant home. This was key to the novel for several reasons (no spoilers).

Despite accounts she had read of Meitner’s conversion to Christianity, Eliasberg said she could detect a strong Jewish sensibility from her writings.

“I felt there was a tikkun olam [repairing the world] sensibility there, and that became more and more important to me as I developed [Hannah’s] character,” she said.

As Eliasberg worked on “Hannah’s War” for more than a decade, she immersed herself in questions related to the ethical responsibilities of scientists. She wondered whether it is always worth pursuing answers and solutions at all costs. She also thought about the dangers of scientific discoveries falling into — or being given to — the wrong hands, or being subverted.

“You may have these gifts, but you need to really have a moral compass that is clear… It has to do with how you use your life and where your morality and your spiritual sense and your duty to the world sit in relation to your gifts,” she said.

Meitner knew where her stood, and made sure it was the epitaph on her gravestone: “A physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Chemist Lise Meitner with students (Sue Jones Swisher, Rosalie Hoyt and Danna Pearson McDonough) on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College. Courtesy of Bryn Mawr College. April 1959. (Public Domain via WikimediaCommons)
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