Sunday, February 13, 2022

Q&A with Jeannine Atkins




Jeannine Atkins is the author of Hidden Powers: Lise Meitner's Call to Science, a new biography in verse for older kids focusing on physicist Lise Meitner. Atkins' other books include Grasping Mysteries. She lives in western Massachusetts.


Q: Why did you decide to write about physicist Lise Meitner in your new book?


A: I’m passionate about introducing young readers to women in science, and wanted to look beyond the more commonly seen women in the life sciences.


I wrote Grasping Mysteries: Girls Who Loved Math partly to make math look more interesting and accessible since it’s needed to succeed in many scientific fields. Writing that book helped give me the confidence to write about a physicist.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book calls it “An admirable tribute to a life that holds some timely lessons.” What do you think some of those lessons are, and what do you see as Meitner's legacy today?


A: Lise Meitner and many others tried to deny the signs of growing fascism in a country they thought of as highly civilized. This felt familiar. As Hitler rose to power and our last president held office people asked, “How much damage can one man do?” thinking surely not much, but we’ve seen how wrong that was.


Lise Meitner stayed in Nazi Germany until it was dangerous to leave, wanting to believe her friends would be loyal. Many were, but the forces of anti-Semitism were strong and terrible.

I think perhaps Lise Meitner’s greatest legacy was her refusal to work on the atomic bomb. Many of her peers, including Einstein, supported the bomb being built, and many, including Einstein, deeply regretted that support.


Q: How did you research Meitner's life, and how did you tackle the subject of nuclear physics in an accessible way?


A: As a writer of verse I’m deeply indebted to the biographers. I also read about the culture and political actions of the time, and biographies not just of Meitner but those in her circles, including Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Marie Curie.


The setting was as important, but of course science was central to Lise Meitner’s life and I needed to show that. I believe that my lack of much knowledge of nuclear physics helped me to write about the subject accessibly. I read both material for beginners and more advanced explanations and tried to put down, in a simple way, what helped me understand the complex subject.


Also, as Lise Meitner worked when the field was beginning, I could follow some initial investigations noting questions posed and the equipment the pioneers designed, sometimes with wires, paraffin, and old tobacco tins.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Meitner and her longtime colleague Otto Hahn?


A: Lise Meitner considered herself lucky that Otto Hahn invited her to work with him as her career began, and thought of their 30 years researching together as the best years of her life. She was a physicist and far-seeing while he was a chemist who was patient with particulars.


When he betrayed her, she was honest and direct about her hurt, but she forgave him. I’m not there, though I tried to keep to her view in Hidden Powers. When I borrowed Otto Hahn’s memoir from the library, I kept the book face-down on my table.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Another book in verse about women and science! With a focus on plants and rocks. Yay for the material world.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thanks so much for your interest!


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Jeannine Atkins.

No comments:

Post a Comment