It has been 70 years since nuclear fission co-discoverer Lise Meitner was passed over for the Nobel Prize, and for many, the wound is still raw and open. While we largely understand why Chien-Shiung Wu or Rosalind Franklin were denied the award (the former, because experimentalists are always passed over in favor of theorists, and the latter because Nobels aren’t given posthumously), there is something in the Meitner case so deeply unfair that I doubt if we’ll ever fully get over it.
It’s the stuff of great drama and, finally, it has been brought to the stage, in Jennifer Blackmer’s Delicate Particle Logic, which received its world premiere at Indra’s Net Theater in Berkeley one brief week ago. The natural tendency in the Meitner-verse is to make Meitner more tragically heroic by making her partner in the discovery of fission, Otto Hahn, more villainous and self-serving. It works, but it’s not quite the truth, and actually weakens the complex dynamics of this episode in scientific history. I was relieved, then, to see at long last in Blackmer’s play a depiction of Otto Hahn that rings more than one note. He is brilliant but tortured, idealistic but weak, and that mingling of contradictory forces gives the Meitner character something to meaningfully and humanly engage with. Their scenes together are alternately heart-warming and desperate as the two close collaborators get torn apart by the forces of war, their spiraling and treacherous mutual arc compelling in a way that all writers of fictional scientific history could learn from.
Their story would have, on its own, made for a moving night at the theater. But there is a third dimension to Blackmer’s work as well, centered on the character of Otto’s wife, Edith Hahn. She is an artist, suffering from a mental breakdown in a German psychiatric ward when we first meet her. Her purpose is two-fold – first, to shed some light on the domestic side of Hahn, but more importantly to engage a notion of artistic-scientific synthesis. This was the era when art, as well as science, was bursting through its classical confines to find new perspectives, and the dialogue between Edith and Lise is meant to gradually establish that union of worlds, culminating in a scene where Edith, having grasped the notion of fission at last, reworks it into an artistic viewpoint which allows her to finally paint at last after a year’s creative block.
It’s an ambitious idea that doesn’t quite work, rendering the grand ideological climax the weakest part of the production. However, there is much to be learned in precisely how it doesn’t work. Why does each step in Edith’s fission-derived inspiration seem so unnatural and unlikely? Is it that the abstraction seems too literal, and therefore unartistic? Or that any attempt by an artist to explain how science informs their work will sound naïve to ears constituted as ours are? Will we have to wait for another generation to hear Edith’s speech and believe it?
Good questions all, and it’s to Delicate Particle Logic’s credit that it is willing to tread through such difficult terrain and give us tensions like these to ponder over. Between these moments of reflection, and the many scenes of perfectly realized creative intertwining and conflict between Hahn and Meitner, it’s a play that digs deeply and honestly in the messy trunk of our scientific past and pulls out only the most intellectually tough material to treat narratively.
Indra’s Net Theatre is deserving of a fair amount of note here too, as a relatively new theatre company devoted solely to plays about science. Their first efforts, Copenhagen about Niels Bohr, and QED about Richard Feynman, were successful enough to allow them to launch this world premiere play, and the 2015 season will bring The Secret of Life, a work about Watson and Crick by Bruce Coughran. It’s a small company with an interesting central idea, and if we want to see more of our scientific past sensitively portrayed in a live narrative setting, this company is largely our only hope at the moment.
Delicate Particle Logic runs through November 23, and features the profound and true Teressa Byrne Foss as Lise Meitner, with Michael Kern Cassidy electrically conveying the challenging inner world of Otto Hahn.