First lady of physics


David Belke finds inspiration in an overlooked figure of science

To say Lise Meitner wasn't given her just dues during her lifetime would be understating it. A brilliant scientist in spite of her own crippling shyness, she not only became a particularly successful PhD—discovering nuclear fission, among other things—but did so in a time when a woman's academic education usually ended before high school. Yet the scientific community of the time largely snubbed her—she never saw a well-deserved Nobel Prize for her advances in physics—and it's only in recent years that scientists have started giving her proper respect. Meitnerium, element 109 on the periodic table, was officially named for her in 1997, which is how David Belke first discovered her.

"I was reading a book on elements," he recalls. There was only a short blurb about her next to Meitnerium, but Belke was intrigued, and searched further.

"Her life was just fascinating, full of setbacks and triumphs and partnerships and betrayals. I mean, the very fact that she became a scientist was a major, major achievement at that time. At that time in Austria, when she was growing up in Vienna, it was against the law for girls to go past junior high school."

Belke's personal interest in Meitner's story has now shaped itself into a one woman play, The Science of Disconnection, presenting her life's ups-and-downs through her own eyes. In it, Belke's partnered with Darrin Hagen to craft a musical score as much a part of the storytelling as the words. And in his already sizeable canon of plays, Disconnection marks a first: he's never before tackled a straight-up historical account without spinning off into fiction.

"I've written another [play] that was based on an historic incident, but certainly not in the same vein as this one, where I'm really trying to give a sense of the woman and her mind and her world," Belke explains. "I couldn't get started on it until I understood her as a woman, as a human being. If you're going to give a voice to someone, you should have some point of view, some connection, some idea of who she is, if you're going to do right by her."

And with that in mind, Belke, despite the lacklustre recognition she saw in her lifetime, sees her as a rare success, living the life that she wanted to lead.

"There is a measure of tragedy," he says. "Certainly she was quite horrified at the uses that nuclear fission were put to. But on the other hand, she is a triumphant figure as well. She set out to become something, and became it, and succeeded at it. She wanted with all her heart to become a scientist, and she became a great one. So, yeah, there's some dark corners in her life, and certainly she didn't get the support, celebration she deserved. But at the same time, she led the life that she dreamed of. Who among us can say that?" V

Thu, Mar 18 – Sun, Apr 4 (7:30 pm)
The Science of Disconnection
Written by David Belke
Directed by John Hudson
Starring Cathy Derkach
Varscona Theatre (10329 – 83 Ave),
$10 – $25

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