Thursday, September 23, 2021

Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner's Call to Science. A review

Hello Friday! 

Thank you, Laura Purdie Salas, for hosting our poetry round-up this week. I'm so enjoying seeing her new book, If You Want to Knit Some Mittens (Boyds Mills Press. Oct 21) make its way into the world. The cover is so stinkin' cute! I can't wait to get my own mitts on a copy.

This week, I offer a review of Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner's Call to Science (Atheneum Books. Jan 22) by Jeannine Atkins.

This review started with an offer of an ARC of this verse novel coming out in January 2022. I will always say yes to a verse novel and that increases by about 1000% if it’s written by Jeannine Atkins.

Hidden Powers is a wonderful read. But, you knew that I would say that. I’m a bit of a Jeannine Atkins fan girl. What’s in it for you? Hopefully, an introduction to a book you will pick up.



Dr. Lise Meitner was born in Austria in the late 1800s into a Jewish family of eight children. She adored her father, a lawyer, mother, sisters, and brothers that went to school. Lise wanted to go to school too. However, young ladies weren’t provided formal education past grammar school and preparation for marriage.


Lise, however, persisted. By 1900 when young women were first offered opportunities for higher education, Lise studied years of high school material to take a University of Vienna entrance exam. Of fourteen girls who sat for the exam, four passed. Lise was one.


She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Physics by 1906 and left Austria for the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Europe’s premier center for science, in Berlin, Germany. In Berlin, she befriended Otto Hahn who she worked with for three decades eventually becoming the first female professor of physics at KWI.

By the 1930s Lise was collaborating on research with Fritz Strassman and Otto Hahn publishing dozens of groundbreaking papers in notable journals. Antisemitic Nuremberg Laws restricted her ability to continue work and publishing. Scientists from the Institute such as Albert Einstein were already fleeing Germany. She and Otto agreed that her name should be dropped from research publications. By 1938 Lise’s brother-in-law was arrested and imprisoned at Dachau.  Though she had resisted leaving Germany, Lise finally understood she must escape not only to continue her work but to survive.


The above, minus my admiration for the author, can be gleaned from Wikipedia.


What you can’t learn as easily is what Atkins masterfully includes in the book. The yearning of Lise for learning and then a career in physics as Hitler and the Nazi Party come to power in Germany. 


Lise Meitner was nominated for Nobel Prizes in Physics or Chemistry forty-eight times---all while an invisible partner of Otto Hahn. Ultimately, Hahn won and accepted a Nobel Prize for their discovery of protactinium and nuclear fission in 1948. Meitner’s decades-long collaborative efforts in that discovery were never mentioned or acknowledged by Otto Hahn or by the Nobel Prize committee. Meitner never did receive a Nobel Prize.


In her personal life, Lise witnessed the scientific community flee from or remain silent in Nazi Germany. These are her colleagues and dear friends. The bakery she’s always loved is suddenly anti-semitic and unfriendly. Her upstairs neighbor seems to be watching her every move...she overhears ugly talk about herself. The simple-minded girl that cleans her laboratory suspiciously disappears.


As a reader, I felt the tension building. I worried for Lise. I knew there was no good outcome for her outside of escape.


Lise did confront friends with her growing fears and frustrations with their self-protection over speaking up against antisemitism. However, none who remained in Germany seemed to think things were as bad as they were. We know this because of Atkin's masterful research and rich description of emotions in the verse.


Dr. Meitner does escape to Sweden as a refugee by 1938 and does continue her work...but at an incalculable personal and professional loss. 


We are fortunate that this novel in verse sheds light on Dr. Lise Meitner’s story as a world-renowned scientist, family member, and friend. Atkins knows how to weave truth and science into beautiful language that young people will want to read.


In one of the most touching stories of Hidden Powers, Otto Hahn gives Lise a gold ring that belonged to his mother as she escapes Germany. He tells her, 


This was my mother’s. In case you need it.
I’ll keep on with the experiments and write.
to you. I couldn’t get far without your insights.


Years later, after Otto won the Nobel Prize and rebuffed Lise's questions about why she wasn’t also recognized, she returns the ring so that he might take care of his impoverished family in post-war Germany. Dr. Lise Meitner was smart and determined and persistent and brave and incredibly kind. What a hero. I’m so glad young people can now know her through the pages of this book.


Check out this Hidden Powers pinterest board.


PS: from Hamish. He was impressed that poet Mary Oliver included ox in a poem that we read together this week. We made note of it on his padlet. https://padlet.com/mitchellhubeimom/Ox.


21 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks so much for featuring Jeannine's new verse novel, Linda!! I never knew about Meitner and her accomplishments. What would we do without Jeannine to bring these important women to light? Can't wait for the book to come out in January!

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  2. Thanks, Jama. Einstein called Lise Meitner "our Marie Curie," but as I write in a poem, there should be more than one feted woman scientist in a country or century. Writing about mathematicians gave me the courage to take on nuclear physics here -- though the girl and woman stays in the center!

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  3. It's so sad that so many women have not been recognized for their work. When I read your review, Linda, of Lise' early life, I kept thinking, "but she persisted". Jeannine has brought to life so many of these stories. I am grateful to her, certainly will get the book when it comes out. Thanks!

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    1. She really knew what she wanted and what she deserved. Happily, her father and mother were supportive, and amazingly, once colleges did open for women in Austria, got all of their eight children into and through college.

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  4. I agree about Jeannine Atkins' verse novels. I don't know of Meitner, and I'm looking forward to reading Jeannine's work and immersing myself in Meitner's time/life.

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    1. Thanks, Laura. I've come across her name reading about 20th c. science but was first daunted by nuclear physics! I'm certainly no expert, but I learned enough to feel I could explain it in verse, and it was fascinating, though sometimes horrifying, to learn more about Germany in the first half of the 20th century. I always like how you take on scientific challenges in your poetry.

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  5. I'm delighted to see you featuring this, Linda, and looking forward to getting the whole story in emotional technicolor from Jeannine's book. I'm also glad there are research-folks out there like both of you to do a kind of work I'm not able to!

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    1. Heidi, thanks for the smile: I have not thought of my words as emotional technicolor. Research is such an inspiration for me, but of course it takes so many twists and turns, this one through Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. I feel fortunate to have the time these days for such spiraling journeys.

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  6. I'm not a "bit of fan girl"---I'm A HUGE fan girl of Jeannine's work. I think I own nearly every book she's written, and each is as precise and gorgeous as the last. Can't wait to read this one, too.

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    1. Thanks dear Sara. I think Hidden Figures may be my best, but also I tend to think whatever is freshest is my best. I look forward to having you read after January!

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    1. Thank you. Despite some horrifying turns in Lise Meitner's story, I did enjoy writing it!

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  8. I am a Hughe Jeanine Atkins' fan. I can't wait to read it!

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  9. I have heard some of Lise Meitner's story. The injustice is so sad and frustrating - but I am glad the story is being shared and credit duly given. Excellent review, Linda.

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    1. Lots of injustice, but Lise's strength is inspiring. My aim was to give her story context, without letting the history and misogyny seem too much.

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  10. What a wonderful subject for a novel in verse! I'm adding this to my to-read list. Thanks for this review.

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  11. It sounds like Jeannine has done it again! Her verse-novels about brilliant women the world needs to know about are gems. Can't wait to add this one to my collection!

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  12. Thanks so much, Catherine. I do love exploring these shadowy corners and it's satisfying to see these women get some of the appreciation they deserve.

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  13. I would LOVE to read this book. Even today in research institutions, contributions of women are minimized, not always cited. A good friend of mine has experienced that even today. Great review about Lise Meitner. What an amazing period to have been alive.

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Friendly, positive comments and feedback are always welcome here. Please let me know I'm not just whistling in the dark!