The Walk in The Snow: the true story of Lise Meitner
by jem rolls
59 min / 14+ / Storytelling
You may well ask. Today even science geeks like me don’t know about Lise Meitner. But she achieved an impressive number of accomplishments, awards and honours:
- second woman to get a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna (1905),
- first female allowed to attend physicist Max Planck’s lectures,
- Planck’s first female assistant (1907),
- joint discoverer of the element protactinium,
- first woman in Germany to become a full professor of physics (1926),
- National Press Club “Woman of the Year” (USA, 1946),
- 21 scientific honours and awards.
Yet these days, who knows the name Lise Meitner outside the physics discipline? How did one of the discoverers of the science of nuclear fission disappear from public view?
As rolls says in a recurring theme (with variations): wrong sex, wrong race, wrong time, wrong place.
While jem rolls has made a career of performance poetry, his storytelling show, The Inventor of All Things about physicist Leo Szilard became his most popular work. TIOAT had sellouts across the Fringe circuit. It found rolls a larger audience beyond his poetry fans.
In 1935, as head of the physics department of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, Meitner and long time associate Otto Hahn worked on transuranium research (elements heavier than uranium).
In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria and Meitner became subject to German law. Her Jewish parentage was now an existential threat. As rolls says in a recurring theme (with variations): wrong sex, wrong race, wrong time, wrong place.
Why is the show called The Walk in the Snow?
With the help of friends, Meitner escaped to Sweden via Holland. On Christmas Eve 1938, Meitner’s physicist nephew Otto-Robert Frisch visited her, bringing a report from associates Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. Hahn and Strassmann had bombarded uranium with neutrons and observed barium and unexpected levels of energy. What did it mean?
Frisch (on skis) and Meitner (on snowshoes) took a walk in the snow, stopping to work on the implications. Meitner worked on the math and concluded that she and other physicists were wrong. Bombarding uranium with neutrons doesn’t result in transuranium elements. Rather the neutrons split the atom, resulting in barium, krypton, more neutrons, and energy commensurate with Einstein’s E = mc^2. Frisch named the phenomenon “nuclear fission”.
Later the 1944 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for nuclear fission was awarded to…
Meitner never received a Nobel Prize.
Being a science junkie, I found the train of events in Meitner’s life intriguing. jem rolls’ fast pace held my attention through the twists and turns of Meitner’s life, particularly her life in Germany during the Nazi era.
But I wondered what the rest of the audience thought of it. While they laughed heartily at one humourous tangent, for the most part they were quiet though attentive.
I needn’t have worried. At the end the audience reacted with enthusiastic, appreciative and very long applause, forcing rolls to take many bows.
THE WALK IN THE SNOW: the true story of Lise Meitner by jem rolls is playing at Arts Court Library (2 Daly Ave) until Sunday June 23, 2019. Tickets cost $12 online (plus a $2 processing fee) and at the door. Visit ottawafringe.com for the schedule and box office info. Read more reviews at apt613.ca/fringe.