Wednesday, October 05, 2005

EinsteinFest: Bombs and Duds

The lecture I had most eagerly anticipated at EinsteinFest turned out to be a dud. Although I’m sure Sonu Shamdasani is a gifted and meticulous historian of science, the lecture itself was tedious, lacking anything in the way of flare or excitement. The slides chosen to accompany the lecture, for example, were nothing more than antique photographs of psychologists from the turn of the 20th century…men in beards.

But David Bodanis’s book E = mc2 continues to fascinate and educate. I’ve just finished reading about the contribution of Lise Meitner to the splitting of the atom in 1938. She was a truly remarkable woman, someone who rose above the politics and racism of her era. If the anti-Semitic Nazis had been even slightly less ideological about their hatred of Jews, it is highly likely that she would have been the one to lead Germany to the first atomic bomb along with Otto Hahn. The lack of gratitude for Meitner’s thirty years of work and moral turpitude of Hahn, her former collaborator at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, were also contributing factors to the failure of Germany to make nuclear fission into a weapon before America.

Over the years, Meitner eventually received some recognition for her role in taking the implications of Einstein’s equation E = mc2 into nuclear physics.

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