Brigitte Strohmaier, Robert Rosner. Marietta Blau: Stars of Disintegration: Biography of A Pioneer of Particle Physics. Dvorak. Studies in Austrian Literature, Culture and Thought Series. Riverside: Ariadne Press, 2006. 220 pp. $27.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57241-147-0.
Reviewed by Richard H. Beyler (History Department, Portland State University)
Published on H-German (January, 2008)
A Troubled Trajectory
In this biography of nuclear physicist Marietta Blau, physicists-turned-historians Brigitte Strohmaier and Robert Rosner portray a scientific career tragically entwined with the troubled twentieth-century history of Austria. Within a few months of the most exciting discovery of her career in the summer of 1937, Blau had to leave her native Vienna in March 1938. For a couple of decades she had patiently and diligently worked to establish herself as a first-rank experimentalist. Just as this effort had reached fruition, the National Socialist takeover of Austria, echoed in the internal political machinations within her own circle of scientific colleagues, made her professional and even her personal future in Austria untenable. Briefly in Norway, then for several years in Mexico, and finally in the United States, Blau eventually resumed her successful scientific trajectory, but her biography remained poignantly and even painfully marked by a sense of deracination and marginalization. Returning to Vienna in the final years of her life, Blau received only a partial welcome home.
As portrayed by Strohmaier and Rosner, Blau's biography serves as a poignant illustration of the injustices inflicted by the Nazi regime. Implicitly also, their book is a plea for a partial rectification of this injustice in the form of a greater recognition of, and appreciation for, Blau's path-breaking work. Indeed, Blau's name is hardly known apart from a handful of experts in the history of nuclear physicists: Her biography bears a certain resemblance to the perhaps better-known story of Lise Meitner. Blau takes on a central role in Peter Galison's history of instrumentation in particle physics, as well as in Maria Rentetzi's recent study of female physicists in early-twentieth-century Vienna. Compared to Galison's and Rentetzi's more historically contextual presentations--Galison in terms of the interplay between theoretical and experimental practices, Rentetzi in terms of the gender relations within the nascent field of radiation research--Strohmaier and Rosner take a more personal approach, drawing extensively on correspondence, primary source accounts, and first person commentaries.
Marietta Blau was born in 1894 to an upper-middle-class, professional Jewish family in Vienna. She obtained a doctorate in physics in 1919 under the direction of Stefan Meyer of the Institute for Radium Research and Franz Exner of the Second Physics Institute, concentrating on the still relatively novel phenomenon of radioactivity. After brief stints as an industrial physicist in Berlin and at the University of Frankfurt, Blau returned to Vienna in 1923 to look after her ailing mother and obtained a position at the Radium Institute. Under Meyer's leadership, the institute proved a congenial scientific home for Blau and (rather atypically for the time) several other women scientists. Of these, Elisabeth Rona and Berta Karlik became particularly close to Blau. She also began a series of collaborations with a junior colleague, Hertha Wambacher, on the photographic method in experimental nuclear physics. Subatomic particles such as those released in natural radioactivity or in various nuclear reactions being discovered apace in the 1920s and 1930s will, under the right conditions, leave tracks on photographic film. Blau developed a number of improvements to this method that enabled an analysis of these particles' properties. In 1937, Blau and Wambacher made their most spectacular discovery: stars of multiple particles given off in nuclear disintegrations caused encounters between high-energy cosmic rays and nuclei in their emulsions. This discovery brought Blau and her work to the attention of figures such as Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein.
But by this time, the political climate for scientists of Jewish background in Austria was already becoming tense. The tension was particularly acute within the Radium Institute, several of whose members were sympathizers or secret members of the Nazi Party (then illegal in Austria), including Blau's junior partner, Wambacher. Even before the Anschluß, Einstein used various personal connections to find a more stable position for Blau outside of Europe, specifically in Mexico City.
Blau left Vienna in March 1938 and, after a brief stay in Norway, moved to Mexico with her mother, taking up a professorial appointment at the National Polytechnic Institute. Although her time in Mexico was enjoyable in many respects, Blau faced at best erratic financial and material support, and essentially discontinued her program of cosmic ray research. She was an active member of the German-speaking émigré community in Mexico, among other things forming a friendship with the author Anna Seghers and her family. But life in exile also brought to the fore her marked reserve, what one friend called "an almost pathological modesty," which sometimes made practical life outside of the laboratory a struggle (p. 60).
In 1944, Blau obtained permission to immigrate to the United States. Following a couple of rather unhappy years in industry, she was pleased to obtain work in the accelerator laboratories of Columbia University and then a contract from the Atomic Energy Commission at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Although Brookhaven was a scientifically rewarding environment, Blau found the atmosphere competitive and not always in accord with her particular interests. The decade she had been shunted away from the physics mainstream was showing its effect. Symbolic of this setback was the fact that in 1950 Cecil Powell won the Nobel Prize for further development of the photographic emulsion technique that Blau had initiated. In 1956, she left Brookhaven for an associate professorship at the University of Miami, where she successfully established a particle physics laboratory. In 1960, increasingly suffering from health problems, Blau moved back to Vienna.
Her return to Austria had some rewards, particularly in working with a series of talented students and a series of official awards, but many disappointments as well. She perceived an indifference among Austrian colleagues to the previous disruptions to her career: scientists who had, in effect, taken over the Radium Institute under Nazi aegis now held professorships, whereas her position there was (still) unpaid. Always reserved, she apparently developed few close personal relationships, and those with some of her earlier Austrian colleagues, such as Karlik, experienced new tensions. Her health became increasingly frail in the late 1960s, and she died in 1970.
The structure of the book is somewhat unconventional. The first two-thirds or so are a biographical narrative, which includes numerous excerpts from Blau's letters. A series of vignettes by several of Blau's colleagues and students follows. The final section--apart from the back matter--is a more detailed discussion of Blau's scientific work. Evidently, the intention of the authors and publisher was to provide a non-technical account for non-physicists, while not neglecting relevant scientific details. As indicated in the preface to the English edition, the biographical section has been expanded from the German edition, with more inclusion of primary source extracts, while the scientific-technical section has been revised for more accessibility. In the biographical section, indented and specially marked paragraphs are also included with background information on various topics mentioned in the text, such as the political climate in Austrian universities or the history of Columbia University. Moreover, the book includes a separate series of endnotes containing capsule biographies of various persons appearing in the narrative. This complex formatting--marking material as more central or more peripheral to the main narrative, or as more personal or technical in character--makes for somewhat choppy reading. But it does enable the authors to include a variety of material that paints a vivid picture of a life in science in politically troubled times.
For historians of science, the material presented in this volume provides interesting food for thought about the reciprocal relationships between individual psychology (the evidently highly introverted aspects of Blau's personality), organizational behavior at the local level (the evidently messy internal dynamics of the Radium Institute), and broader social and political themes (the changing status of women in the sciences and impact of political ideology at key junctures). Historians of central Europe in the last century will find here a lens on the experience of exiles and returnees. Though these issues are here more adumbrated than analyzed, the degree and diversity of personal detail in this book makes a valuable contribution towards understanding an unfairly neglected biography.
. See Ruth Lewin Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
. Peter Galison, Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997); and Maria Rentetzi, Trafficking Materials and Gendered Experimental Practices: Radium Research in Early 20th-Century Vienna (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), published only as an e-book through Gutenberg-e (http://www.gutenberg-e.org/ ).
. The German version appeared as Marietta Blau. Sterne der Zertrümmerung (Vienna: Böhlau, 2003).
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Richard H. Beyler. Review of Strohmaier, Brigitte; Rosner, Robert, Marietta Blau: Stars of Disintegration: Biography of A Pioneer of Particle Physics.
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