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Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner’s Only Direct Discussion of Gender in Science

“For what human problems do ideal solutions exist?”

Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner’s Only Direct Discussion of Gender in Science

“The female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded,” Nikola Tesla asserted in his prescient and then-countercultural 1926 vision for women’s intellectual empowerment. The average woman, he predicted, “will be as well educated as the average man, and then better educated, for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose.”

Tesla was born a generation before the great Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who would go on to embody his vision and pave the way for women in science.

Despite showing an aptitude for mathematics from an early age, Meitner didn’t have the same educational avenues for pursuing her passion as her male peers. When her formal schooling ended at age fourteen, Austrian universities did not yet admit women. She had to wait almost a decade — a decade filled with voracious self-schooling — before pursuing her Ph.D., which she obtained in 1905, becoming one of a handful of women to have achieved a doctorate in physics in the entire history of the world up to that point.

Lise Meitner, 1906
Lise Meitner, 1906

But when 29-year-old Meitner arrived in Berlin with her hard-earned doctorate in tow, hoping to further her studies by learning from the great Max Planck, she was shocked to find herself in a time machine — German universities were still closed to women and she had to obtain special permission to attend Planck’s lectures. Shortly thereafter she met her collaborator, the chemist Otto Hahn, and had to consent to working in the basement of a male-only building in order to collaborate with Hahn, who was allowed to climb the floors while Meitner remained confined to below ground — one couldn’t dream up a better metaphor.

This uphill battle culminated with Meitner’s exclusion from the Nobel Prize awarded for the very discovery she herself had made. She continued to fight bias with the most potent weapon there is — consistently excellent work — and lived her long life with tremendous dignity and tenacity, but almost never spoke about the systemic discrimination she encountered.

Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky
Illustration of Lise Meitner from Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky

At the age of eighty, during her 1959 visit to the United States, Meitner was invited to give a series of lectures at Bryn Mawr College. One of them, originally delivered on April 5 of that year, was later published under the title “The Status of Women in the Professions” — an erudite and beautifully well-rounded rhetorical voyage that flows across geopolitics, literature, art, theology, and science. The piece, to which I was led by a footnote in Ruth Lewin Sime’s excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library), remains Meitner’s most direct discussion of gender in intellectual advancement and self-actualization. It offers a rare glimpse of a pioneer’s plight, revealing how far we’ve come and jolting us into the uncomfortable but necessary awareness of how far we have yet to go. Although it was written more than half a century ago, in its astonishing resonance to issues with which we are still grappling, it bears a resemblance to A Rap on Race — Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s strikingly timely 1970 conversation about racial equality.

Lise Meitner with students on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College, April 1959.
Lise Meitner with students on the steps of the chemistry building at Bryn Mawr College, April 1959.

With an eye to the trailblazing anthropological work of Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict, who demonstrated the wide range of tasks which tribal societies assign to women, Meitner writes:

The development of the professional and legal equality of women can only be properly understood if one remembers how many accepted customs had to be overcome in the struggle for the emancipation of women.

[…]

There were sharp adversaries and passionate advocates of the emancipation and higher education of women, and both were found among men as well as women. The literature that grew up around this is understandably of great variety, since so many questions are tied up with it: political and economic conditions, cultural and moral attitudes and institutions, in brief, everything that belongs to the pattern of culture of a society.

Pointing out how greatly these arguments have varied in motivation, Meitner writes:

When we look for male supporters of the higher education of women and of their professional equality with me, then it is remarkable how few men of general reputation we find.

[…]

On the other hand, you find a considerable number of very respectable names among those men who — form the most varied viewpoints — have made strong objections to the higher education of women and to their admission to various professions. Those attacks against women’s emancipation were directed partly against training in certain professions, partly in principle against any kind of higher education for women, ambitions that got lumped together as “emancipation or women” or “feminism.”

In a vital antidote to our cultural myopia, Meitner reminds us of what atrocious arguments such men of high repute made against women a blink ago in history — arguments with titles like the 1910 treatise Are Women Human? or The Physiological Feeblemindedness of Woman, authored by the then-respected neurologist Paul Möbius, grandson of the great mathematician and astronomer August Ferdinand Möbius, who gave us the Möbius strip.

Writing in 1959 — a time when women in Switzerland, an allegedly progressive country and a mecca of scholarship, did not yet have the right to vote — Meitner notes:

Women have achieved equality in different countries at different times, and differently in many aspects. It is by no means the case that progressive countries showed their progressiveness equally in all professional fields.

[…]

The legal regulations for the admission of women to the university was already settled in Sweden in 1873, but in Germany only in 1908. Amusingly, the main difficulty in Sweden — and in England too — was that the regulation before 1873 referred specifically to men’ the whole problem ultimately was to replace the word “men” by the word “persons,” in order to make the admission of women to higher schools possible. But when this was done, it also gave women the possibility to acquire the right to lecture; in Germany, this did not happen until after the first World War.

Looking back on the preceding century’s “satisfactory solutions” to the problem of women’s professional advancement, Meitner offers a cautionary caveat that reads just as true today:

Not all that can be desired has been achieved. In principle, nearly all male professions have become accessible to women; in practice, things often look different.

Although Meitner had been reluctant to discuss gender bias throughout her entire life, at Bryn Mawr she shares her personal encounter with various “discouraging and sometimes comical prejudices” — a testament to the importance of creating safe spaces where difficult stories can be told. She writes:

For example, between 1910 and 1915, I had written several review articles on the physical subjects for the semipopular magazine Naturwissenchaftliche Rundschau. As usual, I had signed them with my family name, without the first name. One day, the publisher received a letter in which one of the editors of Brockhaus (a well-known German encyclopedia) asked for my address, because he wanted an article on radioactivity for his encyclopedia. But when the answer revealed my sex, the editor of Brockhaus wrote back almost indignantly that “he would not think of printing an article written by a woman!” (This, after reading, and apparently liking, some of my previous articles!

Meitner illustrates how these biases take root in the hidden brain of a society, where they are subconsciously internalized by even its most intelligent and well-meaning members, and how slow the tectonic shifts toward progress are:

Even Max Plack, to whom both as a human and as a scientist I owe so much, considered it at first very peculiar that I was thinking of doing scientific work. I had obtained my doctor’s degree at the University of Vienna, and had published several papers in scientific journals; in 1907, I went to Berlin for further studies and presented myself to Planck, in order to attend his lectures. He was very friendly, but clearly astonished; he said: “You have a doctor’s degree, what more do you want?” When I replied that I wanted to understand physics more thoroughly, he said a few friendly words, but did not pursue the point. But five years later he offered me a job as assistant lecturer at his Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Berlin; this, in Prussia, was a complete innovation. Not only did this give me a chance to work under such a wonderful man and eminent scientist as Planck; it was also the entrance to my scientific career. It was the passport to scientific activity in the eyes of most scientists and a great help in overcoming many current prejudices against academic women.

Meitner encountered another instance of such a toilsome tectonic shift from bias to opportunity in the great organic chemist Emil Fischer, who at first forbade her to work in his lab with Otto Hahn and allowed her only on the condition that she never enter the classrooms where Hahn and other male students conducted their experiments. This prevented her from studying radiochemistry for a number of years, but Fischer eventually came around in support of Meitner. She reflects:

I owe it largely to him that I was eventually entrusted with equipping and directing the physical-radioactive section of the Kaiser-Willhelm-Institute for Chemistry in Berlin-Dahlem.

Zooming out from her own experience, Meitner considers the wider landscape of women in science:

Unique achievements like those of the scientists Marie Curie or Irène Joilot-Curie, of the writer Selma Lagerlöf, of Florence Nightingale can silence the current prejudice in the individual case, but the prejudice still persists. It is directed mainly against women in middle-class occupations, and particularly in high-ranking positions. Nobody seems to have protested against women as factory workers. But I don’t know of any woman who has a leading position in heavy industry.

Noting that these biases are especially pronounced in the academic world, Meitner turns to the particular problem of “professional women with children” and gives the example of Germany, where, at the time, female teachers were required to quit upon getting married. In a sentiment of disquietingly persistent relevance today, even six decades later, she writes:

Undoubtedly, women can see no ideal solution to their problem: profession and family. But for what human problems do ideal solutions exist? The husband can assist by helping in the house, and in many young households he does; maybe it is not the complete answer.

She ends with the words of Matthew Vassar, who remarked upon founding Vassar College nearly a century earlier:

A woman having received from her Creator the same intellectual constitution as a man, should have the same rights as man to intellectual culture and development.

Shortly after its opening, Vassar hired trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell as the first woman on the faculty. In propelling the pioneering generation of female scientists in America, she urged her first class of women astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?”

For more of Meitner’s inspiring life, see the turbulent story of her Nobel-worthy discovery, then revisit Rachel Ignotofsky’s illustrated homage to trailblazing women in science, Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration, and pioneering astronomer Vera Rubin on the importance of cultural modeling in overcoming bias.

BP

De Profundis: Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s Stirring Letter on Suffering and Transcendence, Penned in Prison

“I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me… There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul.”

De Profundis: Patti Smith Reads Oscar Wilde’s Stirring Letter on Suffering and Transcendence, Penned in Prison

“Oh, to be reborn within the pages of a book,” Patti Smith wrote as she contemplated time and transformation. “Everything pours forth,” she observed in reflecting on her favorite books. “Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.”

When Oscar Wilde (October 16, 1854–November 30, 1900) was incarcerated for being homosexual, he set out to be reborn within the walls of the infamous Reading Prison and recorded that quest for rebirth on the hundred pages of a stunning 50,000-word letter to Sir Alfred “Bosie” Douglas — the love of Wilde’s life and the subject of his exquisite love letters. Titled De Profundis, it chronicled Wilde’s effort to transmute his suffering into a spiritual journey toward self-transcendence. The letter was originally published in 1905, five years after Wilde’s untimely death from cerebral meningitis likely triggered by an old prison injury, and was later reissued in De Profundis and Other Prison Writings (public library | free ebook).

In 2016, the notorious prison opened its doors to the public for the first time and Artangel invited artists and writers to respond to Wilde’s stirring letter. Among them was Smith, who read from the original text and ended with a stunning vocal performance of her fittingly themed song “Wing.”

Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons.

[…]

Reason does not help me. It tells me that the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system. But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right to me. And exactly as in Art one is only concerned with what a particular thing is at a particular moment to oneself, so it is also in the ethical evolution of one’s character. I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices with which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame — each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul.

I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say quite simply, and without affectation that the two great turning-points in my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison. I will not say that prison is the best thing that could have happened to me: for that phrase would savour of too great bitterness towards myself. I would sooner say, or hear it said of me, that I was so typical a child of my age, that in my perversity, and for that perversity’s sake, I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good.

What is said, however, by myself or by others, matters little. The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, if the brief remainder of my days is not to be maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance. The supreme vice is shallowness. Whatever is realised is right.

[…]

Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.

De Profundis is a poignant read in its entirety. Complement it with Wilde’s gorgeous love letters to Bosie, then revisit Smith on the two kinds of masterpieces, her recollection of the childhood epiphany in which she knew she was an artist, and her tribute to Virginia Woolf.

BP

Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence

“The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”

Albert Camus on the Will to Live and the Most Important Question of Existence

“If the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so… The meaning and purpose of dancing is the dance,” Alan Watts wrote in his 1951 meditation on how we wrest meaning from reality. But if to dance or not to dance is the central question of existence, are both choices endowed with equal validity, dignity, and moral courage?

Not so, argued Albert Camus (November 7, 1913–January 4, 1960) a decade earlier in The Myth of Sisyphus (public library), which begins with what has become one of the most famous opening sentences in literature and one of the most profound accomplishments of philosophy.

albertcamus

A decade and a half before becoming the second-youngest recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded him for the “clear-sighted earnestness” with which he “illuminates the problems of the human conscience,” 28-year-old Camus writes:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect.

Camus, whose entire sensibility was predicated on the notion that our search for meaning and happiness is a moral obligation, argues that this elemental question — a question, to be clear, posed as a philosophical thought experiment and not in the context of mental health in a medical sense — must be judged “by the actions it entails.” He writes:

I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. I see others paradoxically getting killed for the ideas or illusions that give them a reason for living (what is called a reason for living is also an excellent reason for dying). I therefore conclude that the meaning of life is the most urgent of questions.

Art from Duck, Death and the Tulip by Wolf Erlbruch, an uncommonly tender illustrated meditation on life and death

In a sentiment that Carl Sagan would come to echo nearly half a century later in his increasingly necessary case for mastering the vital balance of skepticism and openness, Camus considers how we might go about answering that ultimate question:

On all essential problems (I mean thereby those that run the risk of leading to death or those that intensify the passion of living) there are probably but two methods of thought: the method of La Palisse and the method of Don Quixote. Solely the balance between evidence and lyricism can allow us to achieve simultaneously emotion and lucidity.

That the answer should necessitate such contradictory orientations of mind and spirit, Camus argues, is simply a reflection of the fact that contradiction — or, rather, complementarity — is the essence of the question itself:

A priori and reversing the terms of the problem, just as one does or does not kill oneself, it seems that there are but two philosophical solutions, either yes or no. This would be too easy. But allowance must be made for those who, without concluding, continue questioning. Here I am only slightly indulging in irony: this is the majority. I notice also that those who answer “no” act as if they thought “yes.” As a matter of fact, if I accept the Nietzschean criterion, they think “yes” in one way or another. On the other hand, it often happens that those who commit suicide were assured of the meaning of life. These contradictions are constant. It may even be said that they have never been so keen as on this point where, on the contrary, logic seems so desirable.

In a testament to his lifelong conviction that we have in us the ability to overcome even the most difficult conditions, Camus considers our irrepressible creaturely will to live:

In a man’s attachment to life there is something stronger than all the ills in the world. The body’s judgment is as good as the mind’s, and the body shrinks from annihilation. We get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking. In that race which daily hastens us toward death, the body maintains its irreparable lead.

In this sense, he argues, the act of choosing nonexistence over existence requires a willingness for absurdity:

One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth — yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that it has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide — this is what must be clarified, hunted down, and elucidated while brushing aside all the rest. Does the Absurd dictate death? This problem must be given priority over others, outside all methods of thought and all exercises of the disinterested mind. Shades of meaning, contradictions, the psychology that an “objective” mind can always introduce into all problems have no place in this pursuit and this passion. It calls simply for an unjust — in other words, logical — thought. That is not easy. It is always easy to be logical. It is almost impossible to be logical to the bitter end.

[…]

At that last crossroad where thought hesitates, many men have arrived and even some of the humblest. They then abdicated what was most precious to them, their life. Others, princes of the mind, abdicated likewise, but they initiated the suicide of their thought in its purest revolt. The real effort is to stay there, rather, in so far as that is possible, and to examine closely the odd vegetation of those distant regions. Tenacity and acumen are privileged spectators of this inhuman show in which absurdity, hope, and death carry on their dialogue. The mind can then analyze the figures of that elementary yet subtle dance before illustrating them and reliving them itself.

Art by Charlotte Pardi from Cry, Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved

Camus examines the layered emotional realities out of which these considerations arise in the first place:

Like great works, deep feelings always mean more than they are conscious of saying… Great feelings take with them their own universe, splendid or abject. They light up with their passion an exclusive world in which they recognize their climate. There is a universe of jealousy, of ambition, of selfishness, or of generosity. A universe — in other words, a metaphysic and an attitude of mind.

[…]

A man defines himself by his make-believe as well as by his sincere impulses. There is thus a lower key of feelings, inaccessible in the heart but partially disclosed by the acts they imply and the attitudes of mind they assume.

In a sentiment of piercing relevance to our golden age of productivity, where we vacate our own lives under the spell of busyness, Camus considers how the sense of meaninglessness sets in as we find ourselves in an existential hamster wheel of our own making:

One day the “why” arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. “Begins” — this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery. In itself weariness has something sickening about it. Here, I must conclude that it is good. For everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it.

Echoing his previous assertion that “there is no love of life without despair of life,” Camus writes:

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable. If in order to elude the anxious question: “What would life be?” one must, like the donkey, feed on the roses of illusion, then the absurd mind, rather than resigning itself to falsehood, prefers to adopt fearlessly Kierkegaard’s reply: “despair.” Everything considered, a determined soul will always manage.

He turns to the ultimate answer to this ultimate question

I draw from the absurd three consequences, which are my revolt, my freedom, and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death — and I refuse suicide… Obeying the flame is both the easiest and the hardest thing to do. However, it is good for man to judge himself occasionally. He is alone in being able to do so.

[…]

But it is bad to stop, hard to be satisfied with a single way of seeing, to go without contradiction, perhaps the most subtle of all spiritual forces. The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.

Complement the indispensable The Myth of Sisyphus with Camus on strength of character, the art of awareness, what it means to be a rebel, happiness, unhappiness, and our self-imposed prisons, and his moving correspondence with Boris Pasternak, then revisit Galway Kinnell’s beautiful and life-giving poem for a young friend contemplating suicide.

BP

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