Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Women Behind The Atomic Age

Radioactive! How Irene Curie &  Lise Meitner Revolutionized Science and Changed the World by Winifred Conkling

Irene Curie and Frederic Joliot discovered how to make artificial radioactivity, the modification of elements by altering their atomic structure. This lead to Lise Meitner's understanding of nuclear fission, revolutionizing science and making the atom bomb possible. They had hoped to benefit mankind, unleashing a cure for cancer or establishing a new energy source. But the first application was the atom bomb. They learned that pure research could not stay apolitical, and that once the genie is out of the bottle the power is up for grabs.

The women's stories are a study in contrast.

Irene was the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie. Blunt, inattentive to social cues and conventions, and athletic she was brilliant but difficult. During WWI Irene volunteered with her mother running X-ray units at the front--while still earning three degrees. She married fellow researcher Frederic Joliot and together they discovered artificial radiation. The Curie-Joliots' research was groundbreaking but they didn't always understand what it meant. Others recognized the implications they had missed. Irene's fingers, like her mother's, were radiation damaged and her health was compromised by her work. Irene's anti-fascism and Frederic's communism made them pariahs after WWII and they were banned from international conferences.

Lize Meitner was of Austrian Jewish heritage but converted to Christianity. Her father taught her independent thinking and her mother music. Lise overcame many obstacles, from a ban on higher education for women to working gratis with Otto Hahn. She was ladylike, shy, and proper. During WWI she worked as a surgical nurse and at X-ray units at the front. Lize worked in a hygienic lab and as a professor and her health was not impacted by radiation. As an Austrian working in Germany, Lise thought she would be protected from Hitler's anti-Semite campaign but when Germany took over Austria she was classified as a German Jew. Her friends arranged a complex plan to get her out of Germany before she was arrested. The story is riveting. At nearly 60 years old Lise had lost everything, including her lab and work. But secretly she continued to help her German research partners and aided them in understanding they had split the atom! Sadly, knowledge of her help was later suppressed and she did not receive the recognition she deserved.

The book includes photographs, a Who's Who, a time line, glossary, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and resources for more information.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Winifred Conkling
Algonquin Books
Publication Date: January 5, 2016
$17.95 hard cover
ISBN: 9781616204150

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