The Woman Who Split the Atom

April 2022


As a female Jewish physicist in Berlin during the early 20th century, Lise Meitner had to fight for an education, a job, and equal treatment in her field, like having her name listed on her own research papers. Meitner made groundbreaking strides in the study of radiation, but when Hitler came to power in Germany, she suddenly had to face not only sexism, but also life-threatening anti-Semitism as well. Nevertheless, she persevered and one day made a discovery that rocked the world: the splitting of the atom. While her male lab partner was awarded a Nobel Prize for the achievement, the committee refused to give her any credit. Suddenly, the race to build the atomic bomb was on–although Meitner was horrified to be associated with such a weapon. “A physicist who never lost her humanity,” Meitner wanted only to figure out how the world works, and advocated for pacifism while others called for war. The book includes an afterword, author’s note, timeline, select terms of physics, glossary of scientists mentioned, endnotes, select bibliography, index, and Marissa Moss’s celebrated drawings throughout. The Woman Who Split the Atom is a fascinating look at Meitner’s fierce passion, integrity, and her lifelong struggle to have her contributions to physics recognized.

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**STARRED REVIEW** “Moss’ approach to this biography is notable in several ways, from the organization of facts into a very readable narrative to surprisingly clear explanations of Meitner’s scientific work and its significance. Even the back matter is uncommonly useful.” — Booklist

**STARRED REVIEW** “A scorching profile of a brilliant physicist whose proper recognition was long delayed thanks to sexism, antisemitism, and personal betrayal. . .A bright tale of a life dedicated to science, well stocked with dramatic moments and discoveries.” — Kirkus Reviews

**STARRED REVIEW** Moss’s (America’s Tea Parties: Not One but Four!) accessible biography paints a searing portrait of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner’s (1878-1968) most famous and controversial achievement. For most of her career, Meitner worked and lived in relative obscurity due to sexism and antisemitism. Her partner-fellow physicist Otto Hahn, with whom she collaborated for 30 years-frequently devalued her discoveries and took credit for her work, including the splitting of the atom in 1938. Caught in the machinations of WWII and fearing for his reputation, Hahn ends his partnership with Meitner, but colleagues in Copenhagen and Stockholm rescue her from Berlin and Nazi persecution. In the years following the war, Meitner, who had not anticipated the weaponization of her scientific discovery, worked with the United Nations and scientists such as Albert Einstein toward nuclear peace. Moss’s engagingly illustrated panels begin each chapter, bolstering the narrative by offering a direct emotional connection to Meitner’s work and thoughts. Short, easily digestible chapters capture a little-known pioneer in her field caught in dangerous times, and address nuclear implications that still resonate today. Includes an author’s note, photographs, a glossary of physics terms, and more. Ages 10-14. — Publishers Weekly

A compelling subject for a biography with complex concepts deserves an excellent writer. Fortunately for young readers, author and artist Marissa Moss brings her distinctive talents to this illustrated treatment of the life of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968). Beginning each chapter with graphic novel – style pictures, Moss explains the intricacies of radioactivity and nuclear fission, as well as the frustrating prejudices that Meitner confronts as a brilliant woman in a male-dominated field. Once the Nazis gain control in Germany, frustration turns to terror as Meitner is forced to flee. Using concise, sometimes epigrammatic language, and a signature drawing style that has attracted so many readers, Moss presents a unique portrait of a strong and intellectually accomplished woman.

The book opens with Moss’s graphic panels of Meitner leaving Germany in 1938. Her face is anguished as she poses a question that will be key to her story: “How could I leave the Institute when finally, FINALLY, it didn’t matter that I’m a woman? Now all that matters is that I’m a Jew.” Moss encapsulates the contrasts of Meitner’s life in words and images. The frightened scientist wears a delicate lace collar and clutches a satchel while Nazi guards menace passengers in her train car. Every line of text and drawing has been carefully chosen to convey information.

After earning her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna, only the second woman ever to do so, Meitner seeks further professional opportunities in Berlin. There she begins a long collaboration with the chemist Otto Hahn. Hahn is one of many male scientists whose attitude toward female colleagues ranges from unyielding prejudice to relative tolerance. Eventually, Hahn wins a Nobel Prize for work to which Meitner made crucial contributions. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, the physicist’s constant hoping for recognition seems tragic: “She worried that making a fuss would make her seem like a temperamental woman, when she didn’t want to be seen as a woman at all.” Soon, that hope turns to disillusionment, and finally to despair, as many German scientists do nothing to oppose antisemitism under Nazi rule.

Each one of Moss’s graphic segments enhances her narrative, offering a visual perspective of the story. Their titles are intriguing and sometimes irreverent: “‘Jewish Physics’ vs. ‘Aryan Physics,'” “A Talk with Hitler About Science,” and, in an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, “A Lab of One’s Own.” Their humor serves to make unfamiliar concepts, such as the connection between modern physics and Jews’ attacks on fascist worldviews, accessible to young readers. Moss also recreates Meitner’s excitement about the scientific method, as when the physicist, working with her nephew Otto Frisch, finally grasps the core of their discovery: that in nuclear fission, “the lost mass would be transformed into energy.” Yet she is unable to accept the fact that this process can be used to design weapons.

History is not merely a backdrop for Moss’s account of Meitner’s career. The profound issues explored in the book include the conflict between truth and misinformation, the dangers of racial and ethnic hatred, toxic misogyny, and the responsibility of intellectuals to uphold moral values. Moss’s ingenuity offers a thoroughly researched text interspersed with captivating images. Together, these elements rescue Lise Meitner from the very marginalized status, as a woman and a Jew, that compromised her goals. Here, she is restored to wholeness. — By Emily Schneider – September 9, 2022,

Gr 4 Up-The story of a brilliant physicist’s life intertwined with Nazi Germany and the development of the nuclear bomb. Lise Meitner loved physics, and her discoveries were some of the most respected and celebrated in the 20th century. Her story of discovering nuclear fission develops as Nazi Germany comes to power and invades Europe. Lise, a Jew, must escape Germany and leave her lab behind. Eventually, other scientists and governments use her discovery to build the first nuclear bomb, devastating her. The book recounts how German scientists also sought to build a bomb, which would have changed the outcome of WWII. The book concludes with Meitner’s later years and her long overdue recognition by the scientific community. One-page comic drawings introduce each chapter and bring further life to the story. Moss presents a spectacular story of history, science, and women’s struggle for respect through the narrative of Meitner’s life. The writing style is captivating and the book is a quick page-turner. A time line, glossary of physics terms, scientist profiles, bibliography, and index enhance the story and point students to further learning. VERDICT An excellent biography that is a first purchase and deserves a place on every nonfiction book list for children. — School Library Journal

Paternal encouragement and financial support enabled Austrian-born Lise Meitner to pursue her dream of becoming a physicist in an early twentieth-century world reluctant to allow women to enter universities, much less male-run labs. With a toe in the door at the University of Berlin, Meitner secured an unpaid assistantship to Otto Hahn, a peer in age but worlds ahead of her in professional credibility. Meitner and Hahn settled into a long-standing, if tenuous, work friendship, but the writing was on the wall that this relationship was doomed to end badly. Meitner bowed out of war work while Hahn supported German development of chemical weapons in World War I, and his efforts to protect his Jewish colleague from Nazi persecution were tepid, at best. Though dependent on physicist Meitner to interpret results of his experiments, Hahn nonetheless often took credit for joint research, and for the coup de grace, Hahn accepted a Nobel Prize for seminal work in splitting the atom, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge that the breakthrough was made by Meitner. Moss rightly notes that misogyny in academia was systemic, and Hahn’s behavior was on par with prevailing insensitivity. She also discusses how Meitner’s own blindness to the peril closing in on her in Hitler’s Germany delayed her emigration until only heroic efforts of others could save her. A brief comic book style episode introduces each chapter making an effective attention-grabber and a boon to report writers; a timeline, glossary of physics terms, scientist biographies, notes, bibliography, and index are included. — The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books

This absorbing and well-paced biography of Austrian-born trailblazing physicist Lise Meitner begins by exploring Meitner’s path from college student to struggling laboratory scientist (prevented, as a woman, from gaining employment as a university professor in Berlin). With the coming of WWII, the narrative kicks into high gear as Moss depicts the Jewish Meitner’s delayed decision to finally flee Germany and the dramatic escape that follows. It is in the relative safety of neighboring Sweden that Meitner makes her most significant discovery, concluding that atoms can be split and that the resulting “fission” releases massive amounts of energy. The implications of this discovery would emerge shortly thereafter with the Manhattan Project. Moss provides readers with comprehensible descriptions of her subject’s scientific work; equally important to Meitner’s story is the depiction of the conditions under which she finds herself working during Hitler’s rise to power. Chapters are preceded by single-page comics showing significant moments in the unfolding narrative. These welcome breaks serve many functions, including moving Meitner’s story along, depicting scientists at work in their labs, and helping readers better understand the many pressures Meitner was under. Extensive back matter includes a timeline, profiles of the various scientists mentioned in the narrative, a glossary, an index, and chapter-by-chapter source notes. A perfect accompaniment to Sheinkin’s Bomb (rev. 3/17); see also Atkins’s Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner’s Call to Science (rev. 5/22). — ERIC CARPENTER, The Horn Book