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TOPIC: lise meitner


She Was The Anti-Oppenheimer, Down To The Very Last Atom

The movie ‘Oppenheimer’ makes no mention of Lise Meitner, the co-discoverer of nuclear fission. But she would have wanted it that way.

The film “Oppenheimer,” which tells the story of the Manhattan Project’s development of the atomic bomb, has made quite a splash this summer, with audiences and critics alike hailing it as a riveting slice of scientific history. But it also has some viewers asking: Where are the women?

In the film, Lilli Hornig is the only woman scientist named and portrayed working on the project, though she was not the only one involved. Charlotte Serber, shown as project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer’s secretary, actually did far more. Some scholars argue that physicist Lise Meitner, co-discoverer of nuclear fission, should have been included.

As a biographer of historical women scientists, I should be the first in line to decry the erasure or minimization of women’s contributions. But should women be written into stories merely for the sake of representation, without first considering the context and the person? Is this what they would have wanted?

In Meitner’s case, the answer is “no.” Her discovery may have been crucial to creating the atomic bomb, but she wanted nothing to do with it nor wanted to be depicted in films about it. And I believe Meitner’s refusal to participate in the weaponization of her work on moral grounds makes her more worthy of commemoration than Oppenheimer. She chose humanity over notoriety.

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