Science Poetry

Split Decision

“Readily, steadily, 
Physicist Meitner: 
Lise walks with her nephew 
Through wintertime snow;  
Her mental mission 
Elucidates fission
In reaching objective truth, 
Seeking to know.” 

This entry will revisit the next of the Twitter poems from NaPoWriMo 2020; this one was posted 10 April 2020.  It summarizes a moment from scientific history, when physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch had a crucial insight that famously occurred during a winter walk.

While this poem is not a true double dactyl (it lacks the characteristic single line composed of a six-syllable word), it echoes aspects of the form.    

“Readily, steadily, /
Physicist Meitner: /
Lise walks with her nephew /
Through wintertime snow…”  
Lise Meitner (1878-1968) made enormous contributions to the studies of radioactivity and nuclear physics in the twentieth century; her story is far too impressive to acknowledge in eight lines.  This poem highlights a single moment from her phenomenal career.  

In the early twentieth century, scientists explored many aspects of atomic structure.  Meitner, a theoretician, collaborated with experimentalists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.  She left their Berlin lab and Nazi Germany in 1938, as she was of Jewish ancestry.  Meitner corresponded with Hahn and Strassmann as the long-distance collaboration continued.  In one letter, Hahn and Strassman reported that, when they bombarded uranium with neutrons, they were detecting barium, suggesting that the uranium atom was somehow breaking down into lighter elements. 

During a Christmas Day walk, Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch envisioned a mechanism via which this atom-splitting process could feasibly begin.  They used Albert Einstein’s equation E = mc2 to quantitatively bolster their hypothesis, relating the mass lost by the chemical sample to the energy required for the process.  

“Her mental mission /
Elucidates fission /
In reaching objective truth, / 
Seeking to know.” 
Frisch worked in Niels Bohr’s laboratory in Copenhagen; when Frisch reported the illuminating conversation, Bohr responded: “What idiots we have been!”  Meitner and Frisch named the splitting process “fission,” in their subsequent paper in Nature.

The last lines here pay tribute to a quote from Meitner:

“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.”