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A Conversation with Author Tom Weston, Part 1

Today, we welcome author Tom Weston, who is here to talk about his latest project, Fission, a novel based on (in his words) the incredible but absolutely true story of Lise Meitner and the race for the atomic bomb. So welcome, Tom and …

Q: Perhaps you can begin by explaining Fission to our audience?

Fission is the story of Lise Meitner, who was born in Vienna in 1878, and who died in 1968. That’s a fairly long period to cover, ninety years, so I pretty much ignore her childhood and pick up the story in 1906. That way I only had to do sixty-two of the more interesting years.

The story is full of many famous people from that period: Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Adolph Hitler, Eleanor Roosevelt, President Truman, and Kaiser Wilhelm II, to name a few—and of course, Lise Meitner, perhaps the least famous but most important as far as our story is concerned.

Q: Who was Lise Meitner?

In a nutshell, Lise was an Austrian physicist, born in Vienna in 1878. She was amongst the first women to be admitted to the University and to be awarded a PhD in physics. From there she went to Berlin, and eventually became head of the physics department at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Due to her status as a Jew in Nazi Germany, Lise was forced to flee the country and moved to Sweden, where she discovered nuclear fission and sparked the race for the atomic bomb. After the war, the Nobel Foundation controversially denied her the Nobel Prize for her discovery.

What the nutshell fails to tell is of a life of remarkable determination in the face of sexism, anti-Semitism, war, death, collapse of empire, celebrity, professional jealousy and, ultimately, betrayal.

Q: Fission sounds like a departure from your other work. How did you come to write this story?

I first heard of Lise when I read the David Bodanis book e=mc2. At that time, I’d just taken a sabbatical from my company to go and spend some time in Luxembourg. When I read about Lise, it was such an incredible story that it seemed perfect as a Hollywood blockbuster or an epic TV miniseries. It had everything you could ask for: intrigue, danger, two world wars, Nazis, emperors, presidents, and the Bomb. The story just cried out to be told. As no one else seemed interested in telling it, and as I had the time to spare, I decided that if no one else would write it, then I would.

This was before I started writing the adventure novels. It was actually Fission that turned me to writing—and away from the day job. The Alex and Jackie stories followed on from there. Years later and I still haven’t returned from the sabbatical.

Q: That’s quite a diversion. What was it about the Lise Meitner story that was so compelling that you gave up the day job in order to tell it?

When I first read about her, I was a little dismayed that I’d never heard of her. Given her contributions to science, and most importantly for my story, nuclear physics, her name should have been as familiar to me as that of Einstein, Planck, Bohr, and Heisenberg. But it wasn’t! So I did some research, read biographies of her by Patricia Rife and Ruth Lewin Sime; and the more I found out about her the more of a mystery it became. At one time she was amongst the most famous women in the world and then … nothing … there was a deliberate attempt by the powers that be to write her out of history. She should have won a Nobel Prize, but she didn’t. She should be studied in school, but she isn’t. She should be as famous as the others I’ve mention, but hardly anyone alive today knows her name.

This erasing from history began while she was still alive. It was deliberate, systematic, bigoted, and politically motivated. Thankfully, the authors I’ve mentioned, amongst others, have done a great deal to keep her memory alive and raise a general awareness of her, and the scientific community, at last, acknowledges her achievements. But all this comes too late for her, of course, and, therefore, too late to right the wrongs done to her.

One of the things that we want from our stories is a happy ending, which was missing in her case. After all she went through, who wouldn’t wan’t Lise to have the last laugh on those who had wronged her? I’d like to think it’s not too late to set the record straight. So I’ve made it a quest of mine to provide that happy ending, by making her a heroine to my audience, at least. If, because of my contribution, some more people know her name, then it’s been a success.

Q: You say that Fission is based on the true story of Lise Meitner. How much of the work is true and how much is from your imagination?

Ha, it fits the Hollywood definition of “based on a true story” in that it is true to the spirit of the history. The important facts and a great deal of the conversations are historically accurate, but Lise is also our protagonist and we want you to be in her corner, rooting for her. To do that, we needed to present at least some of the others as antagonists, and so of course you end up with our interpretation of the facts, events, and motivations. So the story is true, but one may not necessarily agree with my rendition.

Originally, I wrote Fission as a screenplay; and because that format requires a different set of rules than for the novel, there were certain production realities and limitations within which I had to work: how to reduce a sixty-eight-year-long story to a 130-page script, how to keep the cast of characters manageable, and so on.

For example, an important figure in the early life of Lise Meitner was Paul Ehrenfest, but the real Paul’s death in 1933 would have required a detour from the narrative to explain it. Niels Bohr became critical to the story later on, and the problem was how to convey the emotional tie between Meitner and Bohr when there were no earlier scenes to develop that bond. So for the sake of continuity, I chose to merge the character of Ehrenfest with that of Bohr. The result is that, in my story, Bohr appears to attend Vienna University with Lise, which he didn’t do in real life, but it works to set up the later interplay between Meitner and Bohr—artistic license.

Another aspect of the screenplay is that it is quite bare. If you read a Shakespeare play, you’ll see that, apart from scene headings and an occasional “enter” and “exit,” there is little descriptive narrative, just the dialogue. This is as it should be, because it is the role of the director and artistic director to supply the imagination. And much of the dialogue in Fission is derived from the real speeches, correspondence, and interviews of the people involved. As another example, I start the story with an interview with the ghost of Otto Hahn. This is a fictitious setting, but the dialogue is lifted from a very real interview that Hahn gave to British Intelligence when he was a prisoner after the war.

So to answer your question: all the major events in the story are true. To compress time and smooth the progression between these events, I have added my fiction.

This interview will be continued in Part 2 …

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