Interview with Lise Meitner from fission by Tom Weston
“Why did no one tell me?”
The projector displayed a puddle of water. She had almost forgotten the incident, but if we had to start the story anywhere, then that was as good a time and place as any. The projector showed her earliest memory.
“They always tried to spare my feelings; even after everything that happened; even after I lived through it all. They always thought that my shyness and frailty equalled weakness. Oh, spare me from well meaning friends and family.”
Lise Meitner managed to avoid the embarrassment of turning 90 years of age, through the expedient tactic of dying a week too soon. What they had failed to tell her was that her old friend, partner and, in the end, antagonist, Otto Hahn, had once again beaten her to the finish line and arrived in the after-life a few weeks before she did. Otto had greeted her on her arrival. He wore the lop-sided, sheepish grin which he had done in life when he tried to hide something. It never fooled anyone.
Otto had warned her about the interview; and the projector which would play back memories of her life. He had also complained that he had found his interview impersonal yet painful, but for Lise, the interview provoked no bad memories; she had no demons in her closet. On the contrary, she enjoyed reliving her past, and she looked forward to her future.
“Yes, I remember that now. I was just a child. My father took me for a walk in the park. It had rained that morning and I stamped my feet in the puddles as we walked. Then I noticed that one of the puddles had a rainbow in it. I asked my father how the rainbow got in the puddle. He explained that there was oil on top of the water which turned the light different colours. I was so excited to discover that there were such things to find out about our world.”
“We shall just have to make the most of it, Otto. That’s what I always told you.”
And she had made another discovery, perhaps her last; perhaps just the first of an infinite number of discoveries. The projector did not display her memories in chronological order, but in an order of her choosing. As a seemingly random memory popped into her head, it also appeared on the projector, sometimes prompting the next question from the Interviewer; sometimes it prompted yet another memory. But even though she knew this, she could not predict her next memory.
“They called you the Mother of the Atomic Bomb.”
“They wanted me to go to New Mexico, to work on the Manhattan Project. I said, ‘I will have nothing to do with the bomb.’” Lise looked at the projector. “On that day – on August 6th – when I heard the news, I went for a long walk, the press chased me every step of the way. They wanted a sensational headline, so they called me the Mother of the Atomic Bomb. They called Albert its Father. The press need their heroes and villains.”
The image of Hiroshima faded from the projector, replaced with that of Einstein, as she had known him when they worked together before the war. But the image did not come from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where they had worked. Einstein held a violin.
“But where is he? I know that place.”
“Poor Albert! He was such a womanizer, you know; always chasing – even me in the early years. But that was just a cover: he was a quite alone. For all my great admiration and affection for Einstein, during the Berlin years I often stumbled inwardly over his absolute lack of personal relationships . . . Only later did I understand that this separation from individuals was necessary for his love toward humanity.”
“Oh, now I can see it, Max Planck’s house. There is Max playing a duet with Albert . . . and Emma and Grete . . . and there is Max von Laue telling a bad joke.”
“But you yourself never formed a romantic relationship?”
“And there is Niels Bohr. Dear, dear Niels, you didn’t do too badly for someone from Viking Land.”
“That is true . . . I remember my teacher at Vienna, Professor Boltzmann, telling us students, at our first lecture with him, that he would give us his thoughts, his feelings, everything he had, in exchange for just one thing – our love. I had many friends, but I gave my love to physics; and once I did that, there was never any room for another.”
“You said, ‘Life need not be easy, provided only that it is not empty.’”
The Projector stopped. The interview was concluded. Lise reflected. Life had not been easy, that was true. Two world wars and the Nazis had seen to that. But she had outlived them all. Her birth came at the height of the power and splendour of the Austrian Empire; she had witnessed its collapse. But she had survived. She had once been famous – Woman of the Year – not that she ever sought fame. Then they had tried to erase her memory from history, but it had backfired. She had once been famous. Now, perhaps even because of them, she was destined to become famous again, this time for all the right reasons.
“I hear people say, ‘Poor Lise Meitner, how mistreated she was, how unlucky, how unfair.’ But I don’t see myself as a victim. People want me to lash out at Otto or Heisenberg or the Nobel Academy, but no one could ever really deny me what was important to me. Science was my true love; and it never betrayed me, never left my side. It stayed with me through everything; and it returned my love a thousand-fold.”
“Is that music I can hear? Someone is having a party.”
“Thank you, Lise. Please go through – your friends are all waiting for you.”
Addendum from Tom:
As with the rest of fission, I fashioned some of the conversation in this fictional interview from the real-life correspondence and interviews which Lise Meitner gave.
As I have chosen to publish fission in serial form, it remains a work in progress. The chapters published to-date can be accessed, free-of-charge, through my web site at http://tom-weston.com or at http://www.facebook.com/tom.weston.readers.