‘Oppenheimer’ — the prequel: Two other Jewish physicists who helped ignite the nuclear age
OpinionGuest columnists

‘Oppenheimer’ — the prequel: Two other Jewish physicists who helped ignite the nuclear age

Leo Szilard conceived of the "nuclear chain reaction" almost a decade before the Manhattan Project. Lise Meitner used Albert Einstein's E=mc2 to first explain "nuclear fission."

Lise Meitner (left) and Leo Szilard (Photos in public domain)
Lise Meitner (left) and Leo Szilard (Photos in public domain)

Christopher Nolan’s new movie “Oppenheimer” shines an important spotlight on the dawn of the nuclear age and the brilliant Jewish American physicist often called “the father of the atomic bomb.” The film also makes clear that Hitler banning “Jewish physics” is what gave the Americans the advantage against Germany because of the exodus of brain power it caused. But what is largely left out of this three-hour film are two other brilliant Jewish minds without whose contributions none of this work would have been possible: Leo Szilard conceived of the idea of the “nuclear chain reaction” almost a decade before the Manhattan Project; and Lise Meitner, who used Albert Einstein’s E=mc2 to first explain “nuclear fission.”

To fully appreciate their story, one must go back to Germany in the 1920s, then the center of intellectual thought for physics, where J. Robert Oppenheimer studied with Werner Heisenberg, who later led the German atomic research program. Meitner was already an accomplished scientist, the first woman to teach physics in Germany, and was working at Kaiser Wilhelm Institute under the direction of quantum physics pioneer Max Planck. Szilard, who came from Hungary, was a student at the University of Berlin where Einstein was his teacher. He was such an out- of-the-box thinker that he and Einstein would together patent the Einstein/Szilard refrigerator. General Electric found it impractical to produce, but Szilard would later use its motor when he and Enrico Fermi tested the first nuclear chain reaction at Stagg Field in Chicago.

Everything changed in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Szilard and Meitner were scheduled to teach a spring class together and were doing experiments on splitting the atom. In his Szilard biography, “Genius in The Shadows”, author William Lanouette speculates that if Szilard and Meitner both had stayed in Germany, Hitler would have had the bomb before America. Instead, Szilard left and helped set up the Academic Assistance Council (today the Council for Academics At Risk) to get other German Jewish scientists out of the country. Meitner stayed, dedicated to her teaching and the research she had been doing on radiation for two decades with her colleague Otto Hahn. She felt reasonably safe in that she was a citizen of Vienna and had been raised Christian, as her parents like many European Jews, converted to allow their children opportunities forbidden by antisemitic policies.

When the Third Reich demanded the resignations of anyone with Jewish blood, Max Planck went to the Fuhrer himself to argue that Meitner and Jewish chemist Fritz Haber were the “heart and soul” of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. (Haber would be known for the Haber-Bosch process, which would revolutionize agriculture, and for developing chemical weapons in the First World War, which tragically the Nazis would use in WWII to kill millions of Jews.) In their meeting, Hitler told Planck that he was not against all Jews, just the ones who were communists. But as the chancellor began ranting how all Jews were communists, Planck realized he was a madman. Meitner was forbidden to teach, but Hahn arranged for her to continue working in the lab on their research under the radar — though he would use her Jewish heritage as a reason not to include her name on papers to “protect her.”

After he left Germany, Szilard spent most of his life living in hotels with two suitcases, one for his clothes and the other for his papers and lab equipment. Though he famously did most of his thinking in the bathtub, on Sept. 12, 1933, he stared at a traffic light while crossing a street in London and conceived of the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. Szilard realized this could be a source of energy unlike the world had ever seen, but also that it could bring to life the atomic bombs H.G. Wells described in his science fiction. He offered the patent to the British War Office on the condition that it remained top secret, though the navy was skeptical it could be useful. Ironically, after Szilard got to the United States, neither G.E. nor Westinghouse could see practical applications for this new energy, and he ended up supporting himself on a contract using nuclear technology to irradiate pork.

When Hitler invaded Vienna in 1938, everyone realized it was not safe for Meitner to remain in Germany. She dramatically fled the Nazis and joined Nils Bohr in his lab in Copenhagen. Months later, Hahn sent her the results of the experiments he and his assistant Fritz Strassman were continuing, unable to understand why after bombarding uranium with neutrons, it was behaving like barium. On a walk in the woods with her nephew Otto Frisch, also a physicist expelled from Nazi Germany, Meitner realized neutrons were not being absorbed as Hahn assumed, but split into two smaller nuclei. She did calculations showing that such a reaction would release the equivalent of over 10,000 tons of dynamite.

Meitner would not get the public recognition for her discovery of fission, a term she and Frisch coined and were about to publish in a paper, but an article Hahn and Strassman wrote came out first without mentioning her contributions. Upon learning about fission, Szilard immediately saw its destructive potential, and visited his old professor Albert Einstein vacationing on Long Island to inform him of the dangers. Einstein confessed that he had not conceived of his ideas being used like this in his lifetime and agreed to sign a letter Szilard would author urging President Roosevelt to develop a U.S. atomic research program before the Nazis. That led to the Manhattan Project.

Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in 1912 (Photo in public domain)
There is no mention of Lise Meitner in “Oppenheimer,” though she would be nominated 48 times for the Nobel Prize by Planck, Einstein and other leading scientists. Instead, the prize would go to Otto Hahn, who would receive the news under house arrest in England where he and other German scientists were being investigated to determine how far the Nazi atomic program had gotten. Leo Szilard has a few lines in “Oppenheimer,” most notably when he tries to get Oppenheimer to sign a petition Szilard spearheaded asking President Truman to not use the atomic bomb since Hitler was already defeated.

After the war, it was reported that President Harry Truman sat next to Lise Meitner at a Washington dinner where she was being recognized as “Woman of the Year,” and said, “so, you’re the little lady who got us into all this.”

Though the media sometimes referred to her as the “mother of the atomic bomb,” Meitner refused to participate in weaponizing her scientific discovery, having seen the destruction of chemical weapons during World War I. In 1955, she co-signed a letter to the United Nations calling for a ban on nuclear weapons also signed by Albert Einstein, Edwin Teller and Robert Oppenheimer. That was the year another Jewish scientist, Dr. Jonas Salk, would be hailed as a hero for developing the first successful polio vaccine. Leo Szilard would become an early fellow at The Salk Institute where he would spend the rest of his life as a passionate advocate for peace and finding ways science could be used to help humanity.

The epithet on Meitner’s tombstone reads: “a physicist who never lost her humanity.”

Particularly in these times of rising antisemitism, it is important to remember how much Jewish minds contributed to the greatest scientific achievements of last century. PJC

This article was written by Carl Litman Kurlander and Thomas Michael Kurlander, based on a screenplay they are writing called “The Most Explosive Gal in the Universe” on Meitner and Szilard based on an idea told to them by their father, Dr. Donald Jay Kurlander. They were both born at the University of Chicago, just blocks away from the site of the Chicago Pile where the first successful nuclear chain reaction was conducted by Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi.

read more: