Stanley L. Olsen
On the Shoulders of Giants
February 9, 2000
Notes for the talk
Born in the year that Galileo Galilei died.
"What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants."
Newton to Hooke, 5 Feb. 1676; Corres I, 416
"The image itself has been traced back to the twelfth
century renaissance and a debate whether the ``moderns'' could advance
further than the ``ancients'', despite the assumed decay of the world and
men since the Classical period. Bernard of Chartres said the moderns could
indeed see further because We are as dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of
giants (Nos esse quasi nanos gigantum humeris insidientes.)
Ruth Lewine Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1996.
Lise was born as the third of eight children of Philipp and Hedwig Meitner. Father Philipp was an attorney. The parents lost interest in Judaism, but the children were registered with the Jewish community when they were born. Some or all of the children were baptized as adults, but not the parents. Sisters Gisela and Lola were baptized Catholic in 1908. Lise was baptized Protestant 29 Sept 1908; it was recorded in the Jewish community records that Lise left on that date. (Sime 5-6)
Lise completed her public school in 1892, having studied bookkeeping arithmetic, a little history, geography, science, French, and gymnastics, as well as required drawing, singing, and handwork. This was as far as a girl could go in public school at that time. (Sime 7)
Later Lise took some teacher training, and then in 1899 studied for two years with Arthur Szarvassy, a young physics PhD from the University of Vienna. (Sime 9) She took the Matura exam in July 1901, passed it, and entered the University of Vienna in Oct 190, nearly 23 years old. Initially she studied physics, calculus, chemistry, and botany. (Sime 10)
She particularly enjoyed the physics laboratory. In her second year and beyond, Lise took a series of physics courses presented by Ludwig Boltzmann, a very clear and enthusiastic professor who accepted women students at a time that this was far from the norm. (Sime 12-14)
Lise Meitner earned her doctorate in physics at the University of Vienna in Feb 1906, with research with Franz Exner on the conduction of heat in inhomogeneous solids. Her oral examinations in Dec 1905 were with Exner and Boltzmann, and she passed summa cum laude. (Sime 17-18)
In the spring of 1906 she studied the absorption of alpha and beta radiation by metal foils, with Stefan Meyer. (Sime 18) It was the beginning of the sort of research which was to occupy her interest all of her professional career.
On 5 Sept 1906, Ludwig Boltmann committed suicide, which Lise attributed to mental instability, but never understood. In the fall of 1906 she continued work with Stefan Meyer in Boltzmann's institute. (Sime 19).
She moved to the University of Berlin in Sept 1907, with continued support from her parents, intending to go there for a few terms of further study. She stayed there until 1938. (Sime 21-23)
She asked Max Planck for permission to attend his lectures, "to gain some real understanding of physics." Planck was not as open toward women students as Boltzmann had been. His lectures were a bit dry, but a model of clarity. (Sime 24-26)
Professor Heinrich Rubens provided her laboratory space, and introduced her to Otto Hahn, who was interested in collaborating with her. Hahn was just four months younger than Lise Meitner. (Sime 26) Their collaboration would last more than 30 years.
Lise Meitner was a very productive physicist, collegial, generous, and supportive of her peers, who suffered discrimination both as a woman and as a person of Jewish ancestry. She had to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, barely escaping with her life. She was in every respect a co-discoverer of nuclear fission, yet was not properly credited by Otto Hahn, despite her work with him for more than 30 years, and her continued interaction and crucial suggestions after she left Germany for Sweden. It is interesting and appropriate that in the UCLA archive, Lise Meitner is regarded as co-author with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of the experimental paper in which fission is reported in 1938. Otto Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work including nuclear fission. Hahn gave precious little credit to Lise Meitner, and maybe 10% of the financial award to Fritz Strassmann. In fact Hahn went out of his way to claim that the discovery of fission owed nothing to physics, only to chemistry, and that physics only retarded its discovery. This is largely poppycock. Strassmann regarded Lise Meitner as the intellectual leader of their team, and in his opinion she remained part of the team even after her enforced departure from Germany in 1938. (Sime x) Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch, promptly recognized fission for what it was, and wrote a decisive 1938 theoretical paper in terms of the Bohr-Wheeler liquid drop model of the nucleus. Many people, perhaps most, believe that Lise Meitner should have received a Nobel Prize in Physics or Chemistry. Other than the much-deserved Nobel Prize, Lise Meitner received quite a number of recognitions, prizes, and honorary degrees later in life. She accepted them with satisfaction and appreciation. Yet she suggested that people need such encouragement earlier in life. (Sime 366)
After World War II, Lise Meitner remained a friend to Otto Hahn, as well as a voice of conscience with respect to post-war Germany and the responsibilities of scientists. Hahn however seemed to suffer from selective deafness.
Lise Meitner maintained an interest in the ethical teachings of her Protestant faith all her life. (Sime 32) In 1941 she wrote to Max von Laue that her Catholic friend Eva von Bahr-Bergius "always says that I am so thoroughly oriented toward protestantism." (Sime 401, note 30)
Her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, selected the headstone for her grave,
and chose the inscription:
Patricia Rife. Lise Meitner and the Dawn of the Nuclear Age. Birkhäuser, Boston, 1999.
Lise Meitner web site:
Stanley L. Olsen
This Chair is named in honor of Dr. Stanley L. Olsen, a wise and beloved faculty member (1937-71) in the areas of philosophy and religion.
Stanley Leonard Olsen
Born 15 Nov 1904 at Rowlands, PA, the son of Elizabeth Ostherhus and Jorgen Olsen. He grew up in New York.
1922 Graduated from Manual Training H.S., Brooklyn, NY 1927 B.A., City College, NY; Major: Philosophy, Minor: English 1928-29 Princeton Theological Seminary, NJ 1929-30 Biblical Seminary, NY 1932 C.T., Luther Theological Seminary, St. Paul, MN 1933 M.A., New York University (dissertation on philosophy of John Dewey) 1950 Ph.D., New York University (dissertation on philosophy of N C Bower)
Faculty member, Waldorf Junior College, Forest City, IA (3 yrs) Pastor, First English Lutheran Church, Waco, TX (1 1/2 yrs)
1937-71 Professor, Augustana College, Philosophy and Religion
Married Grace Sorbye, 25 Aug 1934, Brooklyn, NY Children: Marilyn (1936), G. Curtis (1937)
Died 10 March 1979, Sioux Falls, SD Internment at Hills of Rest Memorial Park, Sioux Falls, SD
Stanley L. Olsen, "Philosophy," in Christian Faith and the Liberal Arts, Ed. Harold H. Ditmanson, Howard V. Hong, and Warren A. Quanbeck, Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, MN, 1960, pages 142-150.
Stanley Olsen, "On College Education in the Church," Discourse (Moorhead, MN), 10 (1), 3-19 (Winter 1967).
by Sandra Looney, at the funeral of Stanley Olsen