Lise Meitner
painting of Lise Meitner by Sir Roy Calne

The life and career of Lise Meitner, a pioneer of nuclear physics, was celebrated in a day of events at Churchill College Cambridge on 28 January. The symposium comprised three sessions – including one chaired by Graham – and, after dinner, a performance of the play ‘Curie_Meitner_Lamarr_Indivisible’.

‘It was an excellent day’, Graham said, ‘with a consistently high standard of presentations from panelists and dozens of penetrating questions from the audience. One point that repeatedly cropped up was the value of Meitner’s archive, which is held at the Churchill College Archive Centre. Its director, Allen Packwood, together with his colleagues Amanda Jones and Julia Schmidt, ably supported by other members of the Centre. The idea of the symposium originated during discussions with physicist Heinz-Eberhard Mahnke, who has organized commemorative events in his home city and was eager to see them take place elsewhere.

The panel chaired by Graham comprised David Rennert, science editor of Der Standard in Vienna, Annette Vogt, a historian based in Berlin, and Ruth Lewin Sime, a chemist at Sacramento City College, California. Graham says he was especially looking forward to meeting Ruth, the author of a biography of Meitner, which he has long regarded as a classic.

Ruth Lewin Sime
Ruth Lewin Sime signing a copy of her great biography of Lise Meitner

It quickly became clear during this session that Meitner was already an accomplished physicist before she did her pioneering work on nuclear fission, in collaboration with her nephew Otto Frisch. She was plainly an extraordinarily talented physicist – not only a theoretician with brilliant intuition but also an experimenter. The discovery of nuclear fission is a classic example of inter-disciplinary research, with crucial contributions made by both chemists and physicists.

The panel for the Life and Work session
The panel for the Life and Work session: left to right, Ruth Lewin Sime, Graham, David Rennert and Annette Vogt.

After lunch, physicist Dame Athene Donald – Master of the College – chaired the session on Meitner’s scientific and political legacy, featuring an excellent talk by the biographer Georgina Ferry and another by the particle experimenter Val Gibson, like Athene Donald based at the Cavendish Laboratory. In the final session, science historian Helen Curry chaired a discussion on the humanity and science of Meitner. A highlight of this part of the meeting was the talk given by Jesse Wade, a physicist at Imperial College on challenges women face in studying science and developing their careers in the subject. It seems that many of the obstacles faced by Lise Meitner are still in place.

The entire day was a feast of inter-disciplinary scholarship and collaboration. Graham said afterwards: ‘It was the best one-day conference I’ve attended for years.’