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Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind.”

Young Barack Obama on Identity, the Search for a Coherent Self, and How We Fragment Our Wholeness with Polarizing Identity Politics

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” young Tolstoy proclaimed in his diary. “A person’s identity,” Amin Maalouf wrote as he contemplated what he so poetically called the genes of the soul, “is like a pattern drawn on a tightly stretched parchment. Touch just one part of it, just one allegiance, and the whole person will react, the whole drum will sound.” How we draw and accrue our allegiances as life flows through us and we through it is a centerpiece of our human experience, for we are, in the words of philosopher Amelie Rorty, “the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves.”

The interplay of identity and agency is what Barack Obama (b. August 4, 1961) explores with uncommon vulnerability and intellectual elegance throughout Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (public library) — the immensely lyrical 1995 memoir that gave us the young future president on what his mother taught him about love.

Barack Obama in his teens
Barack Obama in his teens

Young Obama writes:

The fissures of race that have characterized the American experience, as well as the fluid state of identity — the leaps through time, the collision of cultures — [continue to] mark our modern life.

Looking back to his own youth as a basketball-obsessed teenager, Obama reflects on the culturally inherited norms which freeze that natural and necessary fluidity of identity:

I was living out a caricature of black male adolescence, itself a caricature of swaggering American manhood. Yet at a time when boys aren’t supposed to want to follow their fathers’ tired footsteps, when the imperatives of harvest or work in the factory aren’t supposed to dictate identity, so that how to live is bought off the rack or found in magazines, the principal difference between me and most of the man-boys around me — the surfers, the football players, the would-be rock-and-roll guitarists — resided in the limited number of options at my disposal. Each of us chose a costume, armor against uncertainty. At least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts, with an inner life all its own. It was there that I would make my closest white friends, on turf where blackness couldn’t be a disadvantage. And it was there that I would meet Ray and the other blacks close to my age who had begun to trickle into the islands, teenagers whose confusion and anger would help shape my own.

Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack
Stanley Ann Obama with young Barack

With an eye to his own complicated constellation of identity, as the son of a white mother and black father, he considers how limiting our language becomes as we engage in these costume-identities shielding us against the uncertainty of a more nuanced and dimensional self-definition:

White folks. The term itself was uncomfortable in my mouth at first; I felt like a non-native speaker tripping over a difficult phrase. Sometimes I would find myself talking to [my black friend] Ray about white folks this or white folks that, and I would suddenly remember my mother’s smile, and the words that I spoke would seem awkward and false. Or I would be helping Gramps dry the dishes after dinner and Toot would come in to say she was going to sleep, and those same words — white folks — would flash in my head like a bright neon sign, and I would suddenly grow quiet, as if I had secrets to keep.


I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere.

Young Obama intuited poet Elizabeth Alexander’s notion that the self lives in language. (More than a decade later, Alexander would become the fourth poet in American history to read at a presidential inauguration when she welcomed Obama to the presidency with her stunning poem “Praise Song for the Day.”) He recounts searching for the language for his fragmented self in books as a teenager:

I gathered up books from the library — Baldwin, Ellison, Hughes, Wright, DuBois. At night I would close the door to my room, telling my grandparents I had homework to do, and there I would sit and wrestle with words, locked in suddenly desperate argument, trying to reconcile the world as I’d found it with the terms of my birth. But there was no escape to be had. In every page of every book, in Bigger Thomas and invisible men, I kept finding the same anguish, the same doubt; a self-contempt that neither irony nor intellect seemed able to deflect. Even DuBois’s learning and Baldwin’s love and Langston’s humor eventually succumbed to its corrosive force, each man finally forced to doubt art’s redemptive power, each man finally forced to withdraw, one to Africa, one to Europe, one deeper into the bowels of Harlem, but all of them in the same weary flight, all of them exhausted, bitter men, the devil at their heels.

Only Malcolm X’s autobiography seemed to offer something different. His repeated acts of self-creation spoke to me; the blunt poetry of his words, his unadorned insistence on respect, promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will. All the other stuff, the talk of blue-eyed devils and apocalypse, was incidental to that program, I decided, religious baggage that Malcolm himself seemed to have safely abandoned toward the end of his life. And yet, even as I imagined myself following Malcolm’s call, one line in the book stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some uncharted border.

As he wades his way through this journey of self-discovery and self-definition, young Obama adds:

My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there. At least that’s what I would choose to believe.

But as much as the self might live in language, it also lives and reveals itself in community, be it forced or organic. Obama reflects on the frictions and fissures, both internal and external, that he discovered in college:

The position of most black students in predominantly white colleges was already too tenuous, our identities too scrambled, to admit to ourselves that our black pride remained incomplete. And to admit our doubt and confusion to whites, to open up our psyches to general examination by those who had caused so much of the damage in the first place, seemed ludicrous, itself an expression of self-hatred — for there seemed no reason to expect that whites would look at our private struggles as a mirror into their own souls, rather than yet more evidence of black pathology.

In his quest to find a community that would hold his fragmented self with assuring firmness, Obama meets and forms “an uneasy alliance” with a community leader named Rafiq al-Shabazz — a man who operates from a place of polarity and deep anger, and belongs to “a Hobbesian world where distrust was a given and loyalties extended from family to mosque to the black race.” But Obama eventually comes to see that Rafiq’s extreme is equally unhelpful in healing the fissures of race. He writes:

I wondered … whether a black politics that suppressed rage toward whites generally, or one that failed to elevate race loyalty above all else, was a politics inadequate to the task.

It was a painful thought to consider, as painful now as it had been years ago. It contradicted the morality my mother had taught me, a morality of subtle distinctions — between individuals of goodwill and those who wished me ill, between active malice and ignorance or indifference. I had a personal stake in that moral framework; I’d discovered that I couldn’t escape it if I tried. And yet perhaps it was a framework that blacks in this country could no longer afford; perhaps it weakened black resolve, encouraged confusion within the ranks. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and for many blacks, times were chronically desperate. If nationalism could create a strong and effective insularity, deliver on its promise of self-respect, then the hurt it might cause well-meaning whites, or the inner turmoil it caused people like me, would be of little consequence.

Mostly, he finds that the raw material of the nationalists was “just talk” — the selfsame kind of vacant propagandism to which this ideology was supposed to be a counterpoint:

What concerned me … was the distance between our talk and our action, the effect it was having on us as individuals and as a people. That gap corrupted both language and thought; it made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication; it eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable. And while none of this was unique to black politicians or to black nationalists — Ronald Reagan was doing quite well with his brand of verbal legerdemain, and white America seemed ever willing to spend vast sums of money on suburban parcels and private security forces to deny the indissoluble link between black and white — it was blacks who could least afford such make-believe. Black survival in this country had always been premised on a minimum of delusions; it was such an absence of delusions that continued to operate in the daily lives of most black people I met. Instead of adopting such unwavering honesty in our public business, we seemed to be loosening our grip, letting our collective psyche go where it pleased, even as we sank into further despair.

The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan — didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this? It was that belief which had led me into organizing, and it was that belief which would lead me to conclude, perhaps for the final time, that notions of purity — of race or of culture — could no more serve as the basis for the typical black American’s self-esteem than it could for mine. Our sense of wholeness would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.

Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.
Barack Obama as a boy, with his father.

Obama finds that finer pattern to draw on the drum of identity when he travels to Africa in search of his father’s bloodlines. He writes:

Without power for the group, a group larger, even, than an extended family, our success always threatened to leave others behind. And perhaps it was that fact that left me so unsettled — the fact that even here, in Africa, the same maddening patterns still held sway; that no one here could tell me what my blood ties demanded or how those demands could be reconciled with some larger idea of human association. It was as if [my brothers, sister, and I] were all making it up as we went along. As if the map that might have once measured the direction and force of our love, the code that would unlock our blessings, had been lost long ago, buried with the ancestors beneath a silent earth.

At last, he discovers the beginnings of an answer at the edge of a cornfield in Kenya, between two graves at the foot of a mango tree — one with an unmarked tombstone, belonging to a person whose identity would remain forever lost, and one belonging to his great-great-grandfather. Obama recounts the revelation of that moment:

For a long time I sat between the two graves and wept. When my tears were finally spent, I felt a calmness wash over me. I felt the circle finally close. I realized that who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation, no longer a construct of words. I saw that my life in America — the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I’d felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I’d witnessed in Chicago — all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father’s pain. My questions were my brothers’ questions. Their struggle, my birthright.

Dreams from My Father remains an immensely powerful and poignant read, radiating ever-new ripples of timeliness more than two decades later. Complement this particular fragment with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of what makes a person and Walt Whitman on identity and the paradox of the self, then revisit Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about identity and race.


November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

“Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo.”

November 9, 1928: The Trial of Radclyffe Hall and Virginia Woolf’s Exquisite Case for the Freedom of Speech

In July of 1928, three months before the publication of Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking novel Orlando — a classic celebrated as “the longest and most charming love letter in literature,” which subverted censorship and revolutionized the politics of same-sex love — the English novelist and poet Radclyffe Hall (August 12, 1880–October 7, 1943) set into motion a cultural revolution. With the publication of The Well of Loneliness (public library), the way gender and sexual identities are formulated and articulated was forever changed.

Hall, born Marguerite Radclyffe Hall but known to her loved ones as John, was an out lesbian who dressed in men’s clothes in a society and era when same-sex love was considered not only immoral but legally punishable. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by the success of her previous writings, Hall warned her publisher, Jonathan Cape, that her next book would require a high degree of faith on his behalf, for she was taking a great personal and cultural risk. “I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world,” she wrote to him in a letter cited in Sally Cline’s biography Radclyffe Hall: A Woman Called John (public library). “So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction,” she added.

Cape, who also published such literary daredevils as Ian Fleming and James Joyce, was willing to take the risk. Hall delivered. The manuscript she turned in was a pioneering inquiry into gender and sexual identity, part social protest against bigotry and part manifesto for equality.

Radclyffe Hall
Radclyffe Hall

She made her heroine, Stephen Gordon, both a lesbian and unambiguously likable: loyal, tenderhearted, often mistreated, and endowed with what Descartes called “nobility of soul,” that most admirable of virtues. Stephen was animated by one central question: “Why am I as I am — and what am I?” It echoed what young Leo Tolstoy in his diary nearly a century earlier: “This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” For queer people, this question has always been acutely alive, but especially in eras and cultures where not all answers have been acceptable. The devastation of that unacceptability is found in the damning words of Stephen’s mother: “This thing that you are is a sin against creation.” — words strikingly similar to those with which Oliver Sacks’s mother broke her son’s heart. Hall’s intention was that her novel would “speak on behalf of a misunderstood and misjudged minority” — a minority to which she herself belonged, rendering the book both deeply political and deeply personal.

Many initial reviews were favorable. Some lauded Hall’s countercultural bravery. One reviewer, Vera Brittain, wrote that the novel “can only strengthen the belief of all honest and courageous persons that there is no problem which is not better stated frankly than concealed,” and that “persecution and disgusted ostracism have never saved any difficulty in the world.”

Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)
Radclyffe Hall by unknown photographer, circa 1930 (National Portrait Gallery)

But the vociferous editor of the Sunday Express, a man named James Douglas, did what critics — especially self-satisfied male critics — do to this day upon encountering art they don’t understand or find personally objectionable: He argued that it was not a work of art but immoral propaganda and wrote that he “would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel.” Douglas launched a concerted campaign to suppress the book, which rose all the way up to Britain’s Home Secretary — a man so conservative that, in addition to attempting to ban alcohol and nightclubs, he had opposed a revised version of The Book of Common Prayer.

Despite an outcry by some of the era’s most venerated writers and intellectuals, Douglas’s tireless bullying pushed matters to court and a trial for obscenity began on November 9, 1928. (Lest we forget the gravity of those charges, a generation earlier Oscar Wilde had been sent to prison for his homosexuality under similar charges of obscenity.)

Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)
Radclyffe Hall by Charles Buchel, 1918 (National Portrait Gallery/)

Hall’s publisher and his team mailed 160 letters to potential witnesses who would be willing to stand against the censorship. Many never responded. Some gave unimaginative pretexts for why they couldn’t help. H.G. Wells declined, saying he was going abroad; he might as well have claimed to be mounting his time machine. In a letter to her nephew penned eight days before the trial, Virginia Woolf lamented the collective cowardice behind the litany of excuses:

Most of our friends are trying to evade the witness box; for reasons you may guess. But they generally put it down to the weak heart of a father, or a cousin who is about to have twins.

Among the courageous were fifty-seven esteemed writers and scientists, many of whom were ready to defend the novel’s social and political function as a call for equality and freedom, despite doubting its literary merit. Vita Sackville-West — Woolf’s longtime lover and the inspiration for her own censorship-subverting queer classic — went to the trial ready to testify. The Bloomsbury set were particularly troubled on creative grounds. Lytton Starchey, one of Woolf’s dearest friends and a queer man himself, agreed to take the witness stand, but not without noting in a letter to E.M. Forster — also a willing witness — that “the book itself is pretty frightful.”

Woolf herself was reluctantly willing to be a witness on account of the novel’s political significance and her contempt for censorship, but dreaded defending what she considered to be a “pale tepid vapid book which lay damp & slab all about the court” — writing, in other words, afflicted with the malady of middlebrow. So when the magistrate, Sir Chartres Biron, ruled that writers couldn’t testify as experts on obscenity, only on art, which wasn’t permitted as evidence, she was immensely relieved to be dismissed from witness duty.

Woolf captured the larger significance of the trial in her diary:

What is obscenity? What is literature? What is the difference between the subject & the treatment?

A week later, Sir Biron ruled that the novel was obscene, ordering that it be destroyed and that the defendants pay court costs. The decision was appealed in a second trial — in which Rudyard Kipling was summoned and never actually used as a witness — but after deliberating for only five minutes, the five new magistrates upheld the original decision. Across the Atlantic, Alfred A. Knopf, who had acquired the American rights, cowered from publishing a book censored by its country of origin.

In a letter Woolf co-wrote with to E.M. Forster, she once again captured the grim enormity of the implications:

Novelists in England have now been forbidden to mention [lesbianism]… Although forbidden as a main theme, may it be alluded to, or ascribed to subsidiary characters? … Writers produce literature, and they cannot produce great literature until they have free minds. The free mind has access to all knowledge and speculation of its age, and nothing cramps it like a taboo. A novelist may not wish to treat any of the subjects mentioned above but the sense that they are prohibited or prohibitable, that there is a taboo-list, will work on him and will make him alert and cautious instead of surrendering himself to his creative impulses. And he will tend to cling to subjects that are officially acceptable, such as murder and adultery, and to shun anything original lest it lead him into forbidden areas.

And yet The Well of Loneliness made its way into the body of culture. In America, the publishers Pascal Covici (who would later join Viking and become John Steinbeck’s fairy godfather) and Donald Friede took a $10,000 bank loan — around $137,000 in today’s money — in order to purchase the rights from Cape. They enlisted the help of Morris Ernst, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, and set about defending the book against censorship. To protect booksellers from being targeted, Friede reached out to the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and offered to sell him a copy of the book directly. But even before Friede and Covici were taken to court, the book sold more than 100,000 copies in its first year — despite its price point at $5, twofold the average for fiction, proving Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “repressing ideas spreads ideas.”

The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned
The logo for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, depicting a book being burned

Eventually, the NYPD invaded the publisher’s New York offices and confiscated 865 copies of the book. But under U.S. federal law, literary merit was allowed as evidence against changes of obscenity, unlike during the U.K. trial, so Covici and Friede assembled a formidable roster of writers to stick up for the novel — including Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Ernst argued for the novel’s value as a protest against intolerance and a tool of social justice. After a series of contentious legal battles, justice prevailed on August 19, 1929: New York’s Court of Special Sessions ruled that Hall dealt with “a delicate social problem,” which in itself didn’t violate the law and therefore merited her novel’s free circulation. All charges were dropped and Radclyffe Hall went on to become a cultural icon.

Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery
Radclyffe Hall by Howard Coster, 1932 (National Portrait Gallery

As Lillian Faderman writes in her excellent book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (public library), queer women in America came to call Hall “Our Matron Saint” and one mid-century op-ed proposed that the “inelegant word butch” be replaced with clyffe. Today, Hall’s influence can be traced to lesbian icons like Adrienne Rich, Jeanette Winterson, and Audre Lorde, and the cultural significance of her work finds no greater testament than in Lorde’s assertion the “visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.”


How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.”

How Pioneering Physicist Lise Meitner Discovered Nuclear Fission, Paved the Way for Women in Science, and Was Denied the Nobel Prize

In the fall of 1946, a South African little girl aspiring to be a scientist wrote to Einstein and ended her letter with a self-conscious entreatment: “I hope you will not think any the less of me for being a girl!” Einstein responded with words of assuring wisdom that resonate to this day: “I do not mind that you are a girl, but the main thing is that you yourself do not mind. There is no reason for it.”

And yet reasons don’t always come from reason. The history of science, like the history of the world itself, is the history of unreasonable asymmetries of power, the suppressive consequences of which have meant that the comparatively few women who rose to the top of their respective field did so due to inordinate brilliance and tenacity.

Among the most outstanding yet under-celebrated of these pioneering women is the Austrian physicist Lise Meitner (November 7, 1878–October 27, 1968), who led the team that discovered nuclear fission but was excluded from the Nobel Prize for the discovery, and whose story I first encountered in Alan Lightman’s illuminating 1990 book The Discoveries. This diminutive Jewish woman, who had barely saved her own life from the Nazis, was heralded by Einstein as the Marie Curie of the German-speaking world. She is the subject of the excellent biography Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (public library) by chemist, science historian, and Guggenheim fellow Ruth Lewin Sime.

Lise Meitner, 1906
Lise Meitner, 1906

Meitner was born in Vienna a little more than a year after pioneering astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science across the Atlantic, admonished the first class of female astronomers: “No woman should say, ‘I am but a woman!’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be?” Although Meitner showed a gift for mathematics from an early age, there was little correlation between aptitude and opportunity for women in 19th-century Europe. At the end of her long life, she would recount, not bitterly but wistfully:

Thinking back to … the time of my youth, one realizes with some astonishment how many problems then existed in the lives of ordinary young girls, which now seem almost unimaginable. Among the most difficult of these problems was the possibility of normal intellectual training.

Sime herself, who spent decades as the only woman at her university department, captures the broader cultural necessity of telling Meitner’s story: “I was known as the woman the all-male chemistry department did not want to hire; under such circumstances one becomes, and remains, a feminist.” She writes of Meitner’s Sisyphean rise to stature:

Her schooling in Vienna ended when she was fourteen, but a few years later, the university admitted women, and she studied physics under the charismatic Ludwig Boltzmann. As a young woman she went to Berlin without the slightest prospects for a future in physics, but again she was fortunate, finding a mentor and friend in Max Planck and a collaborator in Otto Hahn, a chemist just her age. Together Meitner and Hahn made names for themselves in radioactivity, and then in the 1920s Meitner went on, independent of Hahn, into nuclear physics, an emerging field in which she was a pioneer. In the Berlin physics community she was, as Einstein liked to say, “our Marie Curie”; among physicists everywhere, she was regarded as one of the great experimentalists of her day… The painfully shy young woman had become an assertive professor — “short, dark, and bossy,” her nephew would tease — and although at times she was haunted by the insecurity of her youth, she never doubted that physics was worth it.

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

Meitner never married nor had children and, as far as her personal papers indicate, never had a serious romance. But her life was a full one, warmed by deep human connection — she was an exceptionally devoted friend and surrounded herself with people she cherished, in Meitner’s own words, as “great and lovable personalities” who provided a “magic musical accompaniment” to her life. Above all, she was besotted with science — so much so that she patiently chipped away at and eventually broke through every imaginable obstruction to pursuing her passion.

Meitner conducted her first scientific experiment as a little girl — an application of reason and critical thinking in an empirical defiance of superstition. Sime relays the emblematic incident:

Once, when Lise was still very young, her grandmother warned her never to sew on the Sabbath, or the heavens would come tumbling down. Lise was doing some embroidery at the time and decided to make a test. Placing her needle on the embroidery, she stuck just the tip of it in and glanced anxiously at the sky, took a stitch, waited again, and then, satisfied that there would be no objections from above, contentedly went on with her work. Along with books, summer hikes, and music, a certain rational skepticism was a constant of Lise’s childhood years.

Since her formal schooling had ended at the age of fourteen, Meitner spent a few years repressing her scientific ambitions. But they burned in her with irrepressible ardor. Finally, when Austrian universities began admitting women in 1901, she obtained her high school certification at the age of twenty-three after compressing eight years’ worth of logic, literature, mathematics, Greek, Latin, botany, zoology, and physics into twenty months of study in order to take the examination that would qualify her for university. She received her Ph.D. in 1905, one of a handful of women in the world to have achieved a doctorate in physics by that point.

But when 29-year-old Meitner traveled to Berlin, hoping to study with the great Max Planck, she seemed to have entered a time machine — German universities still had their doors firmly shut to women. She had to ask for a special permission to attend Planck’s lectures.

In the fall of 1907, she met Otto Hahn — a German chemist four months her junior, as interested in radioactivity as she was, and unopposed to working with women. But women were forbidden from entering, much less working at, Berlin’s Chemical Institute, so in order to collaborate, Meitner and Hahn had to work in a former carpentry shop converted into a lab in the basement of the building. Hahn was allowed to climb up the floors, but Meitner was not — a hard fact that fringes on metaphor.

Meitner and Hahn in their basement laboratory, 1913
Meitner and Hahn in their basement laboratory, 1913

The two scientists filled each other’s gaps with their respective aptitudes — Meitner, trained in physics, was a brilliant mathematician who thought conceptually and could design highly original experiments to test her ideas; Hahn, trained in chemistry, excelled at punctilious lab work. Over the thirty years they collaborated, Meitner and Hahn emerged as pioneers in the study of radioactivity. Eventually, Meitner gained independence from Hahn — she published fifty-six papers on her own between 1921 and 1934.

But as her career was taking off, the Nazis began usurping Europe. Meitner and Hahn’s third collaborator, a junior scientist named Fritz Strassmann, had already gotten in trouble for refusing to join Nazi organizations. In 1938, just as the three scientists were performing their most visionary experiments, Nazi troops marched into Austria. Meitner refused to hide her Jewish heritage. Her only remaining option was to leave, but the Nazis had already put anti-Semitic laws in place prohibiting university professors from exiting the country. On July 13, with the help of Hahn and a few other scientist friends, Meitner made a narrow escape across the Dutch border. From Holland, she migrated to Denmark, where she stayed with her friend Niels Bohr. She finally found a permanent home at the Nobel Institute for Physics in Sweden. (Three centuries earlier, Descartes, supreme champion of reason, had also fled to Sweden to avoid the Inquisition after witnessing the trial of Galileo.)

Lise Meitner in 1937
Lise Meitner shortly before her exile

That November, Hahn and Meitner met secretly in Copenhagen to discuss some perplexing results Hahn and Strassmann had obtained: After bombarding the nucleus of a uranium atom (atomic number 92) with a single neutron, they had ended up with the nucleus of radium (atomic number 88), which acted chemically like barium (56), an element with close to half the atomic weight of radium — a seemingly magical transmutation that didn’t make physical sense. That a tiny neutron moving at low speed would destabilize and downright shatter something as robust as an atom, knocking down its atomic number and altering its chemical behavior, seemed as mythic as David taking out Goliath with a slingshot.

At that point, Hahn was one of the world’s best radiochemists and Meitner one of the world’s best physicists. She told him unequivocally that his chemical reaction made no sense on physical grounds and urged him to repeat the experiment.

Meitner herself continued to ponder the perplexity. The epiphany arrived on Christmas day, during a walk with her nephew and collaborator, Otto Robert Frisch. In recounting the occasion in his memoir, Frisch would inadvertently provide the most perfect metaphor for how women make progress in science relative to their male peers:

We walked up and down in the snow, I on skis and she on foot (she said and proved that she could get along just as fast that way).

In making sense of the nonsensical results, Meitner and Frisch came up with what they would call nuclear fission — a word used for the very first time in the seventh paragraph of the paper they published the following month. The notion that a nucleus can split and be transformed into another element was radical — no one had fathomed it before. Meitner had provided the first understanding of how and why this happened.

Illustration from Our Friend the Atom, a 1956 Disney primer on nuclear energy

Nuclear fission would prove to be one of the most powerful — and dangerous — discoveries in the history of humanity, a power that succumbed to our dual capacities for good and evil: It was central to the invention of the deadliest weapon in human history, the atomic bomb. In fact, later in life Meitner was cruelly referred to as “the Jewish mother of the atomic bomb,” even though her discovery was purely scientific, it predated this malevolent application by many years, and once she saw it put into practice to destructive ends, she adamantly refused to work on the bomb. She, like the rest of the world, saw the bomb as a grave turning point for humanity. Years later, she would issue a bittersweet lamentation for the era that ended with its invention:

One could love one’s work and not always be tormented by the fear of the ghastly and malevolent things that people might do with beautiful scientific findings.

The discovery of fission itself was a supreme example of these beautiful scientific findings — a triumph of the human intellect over the mysteries of nature, as well as a testament to interpretation as a creative act. The nonsensical empirical results were Hahn’s, but what extracted meaning from them was Meitner’s interpretation — she had dis-covered, in the proper sense of uncovering something obscured from view, the underlying principle that made sense of the grand perplexity.

Hahn took her groundbreaking insight and ran with it, publishing the discovery without mentioning her name. It is beside the point whether his reasons were personal jealousies or the political cowardice of incensing the Nazi authorities — the point is that Meitner felt deeply betrayed by the injustice. She wrote to her brother Walter:

I have no self confidence… Hahn has just published absolutely wonderful things based on our work together … much as these results make me happy for Hahn, both personally and scientifically, many people here must think I contributed absolutely nothing to it — and now I am so discouraged.

Lise Meitner, 1928
Lise Meitner at age 50

In 1944, the discovery of nuclear fission was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry — to Hahn alone. Sime writes:

The distortion of reality and the suppression of memory are recurrent themes in any study of Nazi Germany and its aftermath. By any normal standard of scientific attribution, there would have been no doubt about Meitner’s role in the discovery of fission. For it is clear from the published record and from private correspondence that this was a discovery to which Meitner contributed from beginning to end — an inherently interdisciplinary discovery that would, without question, have been recognized as such, were it not for the artifact of Meitner’s forced emigration. But nothing about this discovery was untouched by the politics of Germany in 1938. The same racial policies that drove Meitner out of Germany made it impossible for her to be part of Hahn and Strassmann’s publication, and dangerous for Hahn to acknowledge their continuing ties. A few weeks after the discovery was made, Hahn claimed it for chemistry alone; before long, he suppressed and denied not only his hidden collaboration with a “non-Aryan” in exile but the value of nearly everything she had done before as well. It was self-deception, brought on by fear. Hahn’s dishonesty distorted the record of this discovery and almost cost Lise Meitner her place in its history.

Meitner received countless accolades in her lifetime and even had a chemical element, meitnerium, posthumously named after her, but the slight was never righted. Although every imaginable roadblock had been placed before her in pursuing a scientific education, she had survived Nazi persecution, and had endured the anguish of exile, she considered the Nobel omission that most irredeemable sorrow of her life.

Sime writes:

Except for a few brief statements, she did not campaign on her own behalf; she did not write an autobiography, nor did she authorize a biography during her lifetime. Only seldom did she speak of her struggle for education and acceptance, although the insecurity and isolation of her formative years affected her deeply later on. And she almost never spoke of her forced emigration, shattered career, or broken friendships. She would have preferred that the essentials of her life be gleaned from her scientific publications, but she knew that in her case that would not suffice.


Scientist that she was, she preserved her data. Her rich collection of personal papers, in addition to archival material from other sources, provides the basis for a detailed understanding of her work, her life, and the exceptionally difficult period in which she lived.

Sime considers the more systemic implications of Meitner’s case:

To insist that Meitner contributed nothing to the fission discovery, to imply that Meitner and Frisch had been given an unfair advantage — these were ways of denying that she had been treated unjustly and, in a larger sense, of refusing to confront the injustice and crimes of the Nazi period. Rather than acknowledging that Meitner’s exclusion from fission was political, Hahn and his hangers-on invented spurious scientific reasons for it. Arrogantly, and with misplaced national pride, they denied the injustice, created new injustice — and implicated themselves.

Given the echo chamber of interpretive opinion we call history, Hahn’s view was readily echoed by his followers and, in turn, by generations of journalists and uncritical commentators on the history of science. The Nobel exclusion was the most obvious, but the egregious erasure of Meitner’s legacy didn’t end there. The fission apparatus — the very instrument she had used in her Berlin laboratory to make her discoveries — was on display at Germany’s premiere science museum for thirty-five years without so much as mentioning her name.

This, of course, was far from the last time that a woman was excluded from a Nobel Prize for a discovery she either made or made possible with her significant contribution: There is, perhaps most famously, Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s discovery of pulsars, to say nothing of Vera Rubin, whose confirmation of the existence of dark matter furnished a major leap in our understanding of the universe and yet remains, decades later, bereft of a Nobel. But as physicist and novelist Janna Levin wrote in her excellent NPR op-ed about the foibles of scientific acclaim, “scientists do not devote their lives to the sometimes lonely, agonizing, toilsome investigation of an austere universe because they want a prize.”

Meitner herself articulated the same sentiment in a speech she gave in Vienna at the age of 75:

Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity; it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.

Lise Meitner late in life (Photograph: Sara Darling)
Lise Meitner late in life (Photograph: Sara Darling)

Meitner died peacefully in her sleep on October 27, 1968, days before her ninetieth birthday. Otto Robert, one of her dearest friends, chose the inscription for her headstone:

Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.

Complement the intensely interesting and important Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics with pioneering astrophysicist Vera Rubin on what it’s like to be a woman in science, Margot Lee Shetterly on the untold story of the black women mathematicians who powered space exploration, and this illustrated homage to trailblazing women in science.


The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

How the precious scarcity of knowledge imbued one of humanity’s most beloved minds with “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

In his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses, probability theory pioneer Mark Kac distinguishes between “ordinary geniuses” and “magicians,” pointing to Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) as a rare example of the latter. One of the most celebrated minds of the past century, Feynman was a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology. And yet he held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life. The pursuit and stewardship of knowledge was his life’s work, but the ecstasy of not-knowing was the wellspring of his magic. “It is imperative,” he wrote, “to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.”

In his spectacular biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), James Gleick examines what seeded this peculiar orientation of mind and spirit, and how it came to shape Feynman’s life and legacy.


In chronicling Feynman’s childhood in Far Rockaway in the first half of the twentieth century, which unfolded in an era predating television and even the earliest visions of the web, Gleick does what makes him a biographer of such uncommon mastery — through the elements of his subject’s life, he constructs a diorama of an entire cultural epoch and stuns us into appreciating the imperceptible tectonic shifts that drifted us into the world we’ve come to take for granted. He writes:

Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory.


Even with the radio era in full swing, one’s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bring—accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear.

It’s easy to imagine how this mismatch between his intellectual voraciousness and the availability of knowledge would enamor young Ritty with “the pleasure of finding things out” — a phrase that grew to be so integral to Feynman’s identity that it became the title of his collected works.

It’s also suddenly easy, and somewhat alarming, to grasp how profoundly we are shaped by our formative environment and how much what we celebrate as genius is not just a function of personhood but of the confluence of person, place, and time. Can there be a comparable “pleasure of finding things out” in our era of informational morass, which burdens us with the deeply unpleasant task of sifting what is worth knowing from the deluge of what is knowable? When Feynman came of age, the cultural landscape was such that everything knowable was worth knowing — and worth going out of one’s way to know. Young Ritty and his friends “traded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards.”

Gleick writes:

It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.

One of Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches

This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:

Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules.


He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and for once failed dismally; much later he learned to draw after all, after a fashion, specializing in sweetly romanticized female nudes and letting his friends know that a concomitant learned skill thrilled him even more — how to persuade a young woman to disrobe. In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but — astonishing to classically trained musicians — seven against six and thirteen against twelve. He taught himself how to write Chinese, a skill acquired specifically to annoy his sister and limited therefore to the characters for “elder brother also speaks.” … He taught himself how to discourage autograph seekers and refuse lecture invitations; how to hide from colleagues with administrative requests; how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment; how to hold off the special terrors of aging that shadow scientists; then how to live with cancer, and how to surrender to it.

After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. One was Schwinger, in a certain time not just his colleague but his preeminent rival, who chose these words:

“An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.” … When Feynman was gone, he had left behind — perhaps his chief legacy — a lesson in what it meant to know something in this most uncertain of centuries.

Complement Gleick’s thoroughly fantastic Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman with the great physicist on science vs. religion, how his father taught him about the most important thing, why everything is connected to everything else, and the universal responsibility of scientists.


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