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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Brain Pickings Weekly

Marina Abramović on art, fear, and pain as a focal lens for presence, philosopher Jacob Needleman on the paradox of the self and how we become who we are, how Lise Meitner paved the way for women in science, and more.Email formatted oddly or truncated?
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I Am Not I: Philosopher Jacob Needleman on How We Become Who We Are and the Path to Self-Liberation

“This is the entire essence of life: Who are you? What are you?” So proclaimed Leo Tolstoy in the diaries of his youth“I: how firm a letter; how reassuring the three strokes: one vertical, proud and assertive, and then the two short horizontal lines in quick, smug succession,” eighteen-year-old Sylvia Plath marveled in her own diary a century after Tolstoy as she contemplated free will and what makes us who we are. Indeed, these three smug lines slice through the core of our experience as human beings, and yet when we begin to dismantle them, we begin to lose sight of that core, of the essence of life. What, then, are we made of? What, then, makes us?
In I Am Not I (public library), philosopher Jacob Needleman picks up where Tolstoy and Plath left off, and enlists more of humanity’s most wakeful minds — from Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to William James to D.T. Suzuki â€” in finding embrocation for, if not an answer to, these most restless-making questions of existence. Out of the inquiry itself arises an immensely hope-giving offering — a sort of secular sacrament illuminating what lies at the heart of the most profound experiences we’re capable of having: joy, love, hope, wonder, astonishment, transcendence. 
Illustration by Mimmo Paladino for a rare edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses
Needleman writes:
Among the great questions of the human heart, none is more central than the question, “Who am I?” And among the great answers of the human spirit, none is more central than the experience of “I Am.” In fact, in the course of an intensely lived human life — a normal human life filled with the search for Truth — this question and this answer eventually run parallel to each other, coming closer and closer together until the question becomes the answer and the answer becomes the question.
Needleman first confronted this question when he was eleven years old, thanks to a neighborhood boy named Elias Barkhordian, who became his dearest childhood friend and most indefatigable comrade in intellectual inquiry. The two would sit together after school for hours on end, discussing astronomy and spirituality with equal rigor of openhearted curiosity. But it was Elias’s untimely death, as much as his short life, that catapulted Needleman’s existential puzzlements into new heights of understanding. More than half a century later, he writes:
Elias died from leukemia, at that time incurable, just before his fourteenth birthday. In the months that followed the onset of his illness, I would meet with him in the quiet music room at the back of his house, facing a large, carefully tended, sunshine-filled garden. As his illness progressed and he grew weaker, my feeling about his mind deepened. He spoke openly about what awaited him and regretted only that he would not live long enough to understand everything that he wished to understand about the universe. But somehow, doubtless because of the more frequent appearance in us of shared conscious presence, his death eventually, in the years that followed, brought me more hope than grief, the hope that arises from the “sound” of a truly sacred consciousness calling to us from within ourselves. 
I see now that it is the intimation of this quality of hope that I have all along been trying to bring both to myself and to my students and readers in the face of the illusory hopes and inevitable pessimism so characteristic of our era.
To explore these questions, Needleman structures the book in the classic style of a Socratic dialogue, but modernizes and enlivens the form with the imaginative twist of staging a conversation between his childhood self, Jerry, and his present 80-year-old self, Jacob. I am reminded here of Joan Didion’s memorable quip that â€œwe are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not” â€” advice often difficult to implement as we wince at the petulance, foolishness, and hubris of our former selves, yet something Needleman accomplishes with tremendous grace, warmth, and generosity of spirit toward the imperfect, impatient boy he once was.
Jacob Needleman (Photograph: David Ulrich)
In one of these exchanges, Jacob articulates to Jerry the central premise of the book itself:
The struggle to exist, to not disappear in this moment, is the advancing root of the struggle to exist throughout the whole passage of time. We need to help each other in this struggle. You by asking, I by struggling to respond. This is the law of love, which rules the universe.
In another, reminiscent of Alfred Kazin’s beautiful case for embracing contradiction, Jacob exhorts Jerry:
Stay with the contradiction. If you stay, you will see that there is always something more than two opposing truths. The whole truth always includes a third part, which is the reconciliation.
The willingness to sit with contradiction, Needleman argues, is the beginning of true self-knowledge and of the deepest kind of truthfulness. Echoing André Gide’s assertion that sincerity is the most difficult feat of all, Jacob tells Jerry:
This is the beginning of sincerity. 
Because you are struggling, your question begins to deepen… What you will discover, always for the first time, always new, in the fleeting moment of wonder — before that moment is captured by the ambitions of personality. You, I, in that moment, will discover the need to serve the energy, uniquely human and also sacred, that starts as the pure awareness of one’s own existence. And even as this idea — this beginning idea — of what is human, even as this idea of what is man, begins to appear — even in that fleeting moment of the pure awareness of my existence given now by a great idea — in that moment in front of a living idea, an awakening idea, a glimpse appears of the uniquely human yearning to serve; the need appears, the need to obey that energy, the need to attend to it, to be nourished by it, to receive the help that comes then and only then, when you are objectively obliged to give, to serve, to manifest that energy in action and understanding. It is only that energy of conscious existence that gives you, a human being, real strength. The energy that is the total awareness of one’s own existence is — or can become, can be â€” the strongest energy in human life.
In another exchange, Jacob steers Jerry toward the idea that acknowledging the illusoriness of free will liberates us rather than taking away our freedom. Pointing out how impossible it is to understand freedom without understanding the influences acting upon us, the laws of the universe, and the nature of reality, he considers the source of real freedom:
Ask yourself what is your understanding of the influences acting upon us — of the universal laws in nature? What are your thoughts about that? And the teachings of religion — the idea of faith, obedience to the higher, responsibility for others and oneself, the deceptions and revelations of sleep and dreaming, the very idea of man’s place in the living, breathing, sentient cosmos, our place on our planet, the demand for morality, the nature of animal instinct and intuition within us and around us, the function and the meaning of pain and pleasure, the idea and the experience of consciousness and conscience, the subtle nourishment in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the genuine and the fabricated needs and desires of the body, the powerful influences of symbols, the cosmic and intimate force of sex, the inevitability of death, the illusion and the reality of time.
[…]
Working like this, and maintaining the fundamental attitude of sincerity about yourself and your discoveries, you will become disillusioned not only with your certainties, but with the structure of your mind itself. You will realize that what you need is not new beliefs, new information, new theories, but an entirely new mind.
Such dissolution of certainty, Needleman argues, is the gateway to real freedom:
Real ideas open the mind to the heart, to the heart of the mind, to another level of reality within ourselves… This is the taste, the beginning, of inner freedom. Only fools imagine that freedom means getting what one happens to desire. Real freedom begins with obedience to a higher influence — a higher, finer energy within oneself.
[…]
What is higher in yourself? That way of thinking about the question is the beginning of the answer — because it involves a real idea which has been handed down to humanity over thousands of years… At such a point you yourself will find the answer — not as a thought, but as an experience. 
You will for a moment become the answer! You will not only have a taste of real freedom; you will for a moment be freedom.
How to cultivate such a capacity for self-erasure in the service of self-transcendence and self-liberation is what Needleman goes on to explore in the remainder of the thoroughly elevating and illuminating I Am Not I. Complement it with Aldous Huxley on the divine within, astrophysicist Marcelo Gleiser on how to live with mystery in the age of knowledge, and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity in literature and life, then revisit Plato and the perplexity of free will.

Walk Through Walls: Marina Abramović on Art, Fear, Taking Risks, and Pain as a Focal Lens for Presence

“To make use … of the sufferings that chance inflicts upon us is better than inflicting discipline upon oneself,”Simone Weil wrote in contemplating how to make use of our suffering shortly before her untimely, heroic death in 1942. Weil, perhaps the closest thing we have to a modern secular saint, believed that approaching pain with consent rather than resistance was a creative act and a source of empowerment, subverting the given circumstances into one’s locus of agency. 
In many ways, performance artist Marina Abramović(b. November 30, 1946) has plotted her trailblazing creative trajectory along the same vector of conviction, using pain — both externally inflicted and self-elected — as a creative medium, but using discipline as the mechanism of subversion. As she approaches her seventieth year, Abramović looks back on her unusual life in her magnificent memoir Walk Through Walls (public library). 
Marina, age 4, with her father
Abramović writes unsentimentally about the trials and terrors of her childhood in Yugoslavia — about growing up in relative privilege amid the soul-draining drabness of communism; about being “materially comfortable but emotionally desolate”; about the brutality of her parents’ marriage, both of whom slept with loaded pistols on their bedside tables; about the constant beatings by her mother, a onetime army major with a steel hand and a steel heart, then director of the formidably named Museum of Art and Revolution. (I was struck by the astonishing number of parallels, both cultural and personal, between Abramović’s early life and my own — two lives lived a generation apart across the border of our neighboring countries.)
Marina, age 5, in Belgrade
“This was the happiest time of my childhood,”Abramović recounts of her yearlong stay in a hospital at age six, after a persistent nosebleed required that she sleep sitting up in order not to choke on her own blood. The doctors first suspected leukemia, but a litany of tests revealed, as Abramović puts it, “something more mysterious… some kind of psychosomatic reaction” to her mother’s beatings. (We now know, of course, that there is nothing mysterious about such a reaction — as pioneering immunologist Esther Sternberg would demonstrate three decades later, emotional stress affects our susceptibility to physical illness in a variety of ways, including manifestations this dramatic.) After seven-year-old Marina was sent home from the hospital, the beatings continued, with only slightly diminished frequency and severity. 
It was around that time that Abramović, like young Jane Goodall, awakened to what would become her lifelong purpose. She writes:
I knew from the age of six or seven that I wanted to be an artist. My mother punished me for many things, but she encouraged me in this one way. Art was holy to her.
[…]
My first paintings were of my dreams. They were more real to me than the reality I was living in — I didn’t like my reality. I remember waking up, and the memory of my dreams was so strong that I would write them down, and then I would paint them, in just two very particular colors, a deep green and a night blue. Never anything else.
If fleshly brutality was the norm of her childhood, its specter haunted Marina since before she was born — she was named after a Russian soldier with whom her father had been in love during WWII, blown up by a grenade before his eyes. But there is something intensely enthralling about Abramović’s simple, matter-of-factly candor in surveying, without belaboring, the traumatic formative experiences despite which — and, to a large extent, because of which — she became the person and artist she is. 
Abramović, age 14, wearing clothes she had made from curtains
She recounts:
Deep shame, maximum self-consciousness. When I was young it was impossible for me to talk to people. Now I can stand in front of three thousand people without any notes, any preconception of what I’m going to say, even without visual material, and I can look at everyone in the audience and talk for two hours easily. 
What happened? 
Art happened.
Abramović, age 15, Istria
Art became a life-straw for Abramović — a hedge against the loneliness and sadness of her home life. Amid her mother’s suffocating and punishing control, art became the one domain where she felt she had absolute freedom — the freedom of expression. 
Abramović, age 22, at her painting studio in Belgrade
At twenty-four, Abramović was still living at home with her mother — not at all uncommon in Eastern Europe — and still had to abide by a 10pm curfew. But she immersed herself in art, painted obsessively, and was admitted into Belgrade’s Academy of Fine Arts. She was the only woman in her art collective. 
Abramović, age 24, with her art collective at Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center
Together, they would spend hours talking about “a way past painting: a way to put life itself into art.” This way became performance art, and Abramović threw herself wholeheartedly, wholebodily into it. By her mid-twenties, she had made a name for herself in Belgrade. In 1972, a Scottish curator traversed the Iron Curtain in search of original ideas for the famed Edinburgh Festival the following summer and was captivated by her work. He invited Abramović to show at the festival — an invitation into what was practically another world: the West. 
Abramović arrived in Edinburg thrilled and terrified in equal measure. She recalls:
It was my first trip to the West as an artist. I felt like a very small fish in a very big pond.
The piece she chose to perform, titled Rhythm 10, was a play on a drinking game popular among Russian and Yugoslav peasants: The player spreads their fingers onto a wooden surface and, using a sharp knife, begins rapidly stabbing the wood in the gap between the fingers. Whenever they miss and knick or stab themselves, they take a shot; the more shots they take, the more they lose control and cut themselves — an exponentially accelerating machine for self-inflicted pain. Abramović’s piece subverted this mechanism by placing the artist at the locus of control — she would go through the rapid motions deliberately, using ten different knives in succession, so that whenever she stabbed herself, the pain would be a testament to absolute presence. 
In a sentiment that calls to mind Amanda Palmer’s assertion that â€œwherever you don’t want to go, whatever that risk is, wherever the unsafe place is — that really is the gift that you have to give,” Abramović reflects on her initiation into her own self as an artist:
Some big part of me is thrilled by the unknown, by the idea of taking risks. When it comes to doing risky things, I don’t care. I just go for it. 
That doesn’t mean I’m fearless. Quite the opposite. The idea of death terrifies me. When there is turbulence on an airplane, I shake with fear. I start composing my last will and testament. But when it comes to my work, I cast caution to the winds.
[…]
I could hardly breathe from the idea that I was going to do this. But I was also serious about what I was about to do, 100 percent committed. I was so serious about everything then! Yet I think I needed this gravity. Much later on, I read a statement of Bruce Nauman’s: “Art is a matter of life and death.” It sounds melodramatic, but it’s so true. This was exactly how it was for me, even at the beginning. Art was life and death. There was nothing else. It was so serious, and so necessary.
The determination that carried her through the performance embodies Nicole Krauss’s beautiful assertion that â€œbravery is always more intelligent than fear, since it is built on the foundation of what one knows about oneself: the knowledge of one’s strength and capacity, of one’s passion.” When she finished the piece, having gone through all ten knives, Abramović faced the white paper onto which she had performed it, “stained very impressively” with her own blood — the very blood that had been one of her biggest fears during her violent childhood. The self-harm was in a way self-healing. It was also her first awareness of what art does — its supreme power of self-transcendence, for artist and viewer alike, and a powerful channel of communion between the two. She writes:
The crowd stared, dead silent. And a very strange feeling came over me, something I had never dreamed of: It was as if electricity was running through my body, and the audience and I had become one. A single organism. The sense of danger in the room had united the onlookers and me in that moment: the here and now, and nowhere else.
That thing that each of us lives with, that you are your own little self privately — once you step into the performance space, you are acting from a higher self, and it’s not you anymore. It’s not the you that you know. It’s something else. There on the gymnasium floor of Melville College in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was as if I had become, at the same time, a receiver and transmitter of huge, Tesla-like energy. The fear was gone, the pain was gone. I had become a Marina whom I didn’t know yet.
For Abramović, the experience was also a homecoming of sorts — using pain as a focal point of presence, she had attained a taste of that coveted freedom, the freedom of expression, which had first drawn her to art as a child. She reflects:
Listening to the wild applause from the audience, I knew I’d succeeded in creating an unprecedented unity of time present and time past with random errors.
I had experienced absolute freedom — I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn’t matter, that nothing mattered at all — and it intoxicated me. I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I’d received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object that I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again.
Abramović performing Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful, 1975
But beyond the personal transcendence, Abramović approached her art as a gateway into the largest, most universal questions of meaning in human life. Looking back on a piece she performed at Copenhagen’s Charlottenborg Art Festival two years later, titled Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful â€” an ironic response to the communist-era “aesthetic presumption that art must be beautiful” and a revolt against the notion of art as vacant decoration — Abramović writes:
When it came to art, I only cared about content: what a work meant… I had come to believe that art must be disturbing, art must ask questions, art must predict the future. If art is just political, it becomes like newspaper. It can be used once, and the next day it’s yesterday’s news. Only layers of meaning can give long life to art — that way, society takes what it needs from the work over time.
This view of art — as a source of meaning, as a transmutation of pain into power, as a sublime medium of human connection through mutual vulnerability — would animate Abramović’s long and illustrious career. Thirty-five years after that initial knife-point revelation, she would experience the same sublime unity of spacetime in one of her most celebrated works, The Artist Is Present â€” an astonishing feat of body, spirit, and creative vitality, in which Abramović spent 736 hours sitting at a table on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, in intense silence, as visitors ranging from children to public figures to the great love of her youth, the artist Ulay, sat across from her and shared communion in crystalline presence. 
Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. Sitting across from her, Ulay. (Photograph: Scott Rudd)
She reflects on how the project illuminated for her the meaning of art and its ultimate purpose:
During the final month, as this piece became one with life itself, I started to think intensely about the purpose of my existence. Eight hundred fifty thousand people in all had stood in the atrium, seventeen thousand on the final day alone. And I was there for everyone there, whether they sat with me or not. Suddenly, out of nowhere in the world, this overwhelming need had appeared. The responsibility was enormous. 
I was there for everyone who was there. A great trust had been given to me — a trust that I didn’t dare abuse, in any way. Hearts were opened to me, and I opened my heart in return, time after time after time. I opened my heart to each one, then closed my eyes — and then there was always another. My physical pain was one thing. But the pain in my heart, the pain of pure love, was far greater.
[…]
The sheer quantity of love, the unconditional love of total strangers, was the most incredible feeling I’ve ever had. I don’t know if this is art, I said to myself. I don’t know what this is, or what art is. I’d always thought of art as something that was expressed through certain tools: painting, sculpture, photography, writing, film, music, architecture. And yes, performance. But this performance went beyond performance. This was life. Could art, should art, be isolated from life? I began to feel more and more strongly that art must be life — it must belong to everybody. I felt, more powerfully than ever, that what I had created had a purpose.
In the remainder of the thoroughly terrific Walk Through Walls, Abramović goes on to chronicle how the peculiar fragments of her life — her traumatic but eventually reconciliatory relationship with her mother, her cinematic twelve-year romance with Ulay, her survival of both poverty and privilege — converged into this mosaic of creative purpose. Complement it with some of the greatest artists of our time, including Abramović herself, on courage, creativity, criticism, and what success really means, then revisit Van Gogh on fear, risk-taking, and how inspired mistakes move us forward.

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: â€œI 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: â€œI 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
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: â€œNo 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: â€œI 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
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. 
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
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 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) — 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 into a wholly different element, 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 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 thins 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 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)
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.