A compelling subject for a biography with complex concepts deserves an excellent writer. Fortunately for young readers, author and artist Marissa Moss brings her distinctive talents to this illustrated treatment of the life of Jewish physicist Lise Meitner (1878−1968). Beginning each chapter with graphic novel – style pictures, Moss explains the intricacies of radioactivity and nuclear fission, as well as the frustrating prejudices that Meitner confronts as a brilliant woman in a male-dominated field. Once the Nazis gain control in Germany, frustration turns to terror as Meitner is forced to flee. Using concise, sometimes epigrammatic language, and a signature drawing style that has attracted so many readers, Moss presents a unique portrait of a strong and intellectually accomplished woman.
The book opens with Moss’s graphic panels of Meitner leaving Germany in 1938. Her face is anguished as she poses a question that will be key to her story: “How could I leave the Institute when finally, FINALLY, it didn’t matter that I’m a woman? Now all that matters is that I’m a Jew.” Moss encapsulates the contrasts of Meitner’s life in words and images. The frightened scientist wears a delicate lace collar and clutches a satchel while Nazi guards menace passengers in her train car. Every line of text and drawing has been carefully chosen to convey information.
After earning her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna, only the second woman ever to do so, Meitner seeks further professional opportunities in Berlin. There she begins a long collaboration with the chemist Otto Hahn. Hahn is one of many male scientists whose attitude toward female colleagues ranges from unyielding prejudice to relative tolerance. Eventually, Hahn wins a Nobel Prize for work to which Meitner made crucial contributions. From the perspective of the twenty-first century, the physicist’s constant hoping for recognition seems tragic: “She worried that making a fuss would make her seem like a temperamental woman, when she didn’t want to be seen as a woman at all.” Soon, that hope turns to disillusionment, and finally to despair, as many German scientists do nothing to oppose antisemitism under Nazi rule.
Each one of Moss’s graphic segments enhances her narrative, offering a visual perspective of the story. Their titles are intriguing and sometimes irreverent: “‘Jewish Physics’ vs. ‘Aryan Physics,’” “A Talk with Hitler About Science,” and, in an allusion to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay, “A Lab of One’s Own.” Their humor serves to make unfamiliar concepts, such as the connection between modern physics and Jews’ attacks on fascist worldviews, accessible to young readers. Moss also recreates Meitner’s excitement about the scientific method, as when the physicist, working with her nephew Otto Frisch, finally grasps the core of their discovery: that in nuclear fission, “the lost mass would be transformed into energy.” Yet she is unable to accept the fact that this process can be used to design weapons.
History is not merely a backdrop for Moss’s account of Meitner’s career. The profound issues explored in the book include the conflict between truth and misinformation, the dangers of racial and ethnic hatred, toxic misogyny, and the responsibility of intellectuals to uphold moral values. Moss’s ingenuity offers a thoroughly researched text interspersed with captivating images. Together, these elements rescue Lise Meitner from the very marginalized status, as a woman and a Jew, that compromised her goals. Here, she is restored to wholeness.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.