“Meitner” might right history

Robert Marc Friedman’s one true ambition in life was to someday become a playwright. In order to achieve this goal, he followed the most logical course of action: he majored in meteorology and physics. A few decades later at the University of Oslo, where Robert now teaches, he met Swedish actor Ingemar Carlehed, with whom he decided to begin work on a play. After meeting a few more Swedish actors, finding the story of one of the most important female scientists in history and meeting a conveniently-placed Yale professor, Friedman had the ingredients for this weekend’s showings of “Lise Meitner, Women in Science, and the Nobel Prize: Remembering Miss Meitner.”

Friedman’s one-act play, directed by Christel Körner, tells the sobering story of Lise Meitner, the Austrian-born, and later Swedish scientist who, together with chemist Otto Hahn, helped discover nuclear fission. Denied the Nobel Prize for her work, however, she was instead forced to watch as her partner took full credit for the discovery that would one day lead to the world’s most destructive weapons.

“There is the drama that we can all relate to,” said Friedman. “What happens when you do what you’re supposed to? You do it damn well and you’re denied credit for what you deserve?”

Johan Karlberg, who plays the role of Manne Siegbahn, the scientist in whose laboratory Meitner once worked, explained how harsh prejudices against women barred Meitner from receiving credit for her remarkable discovery.

“It’s a very popular topic nowadays,” Karlberg said. “The environment for women in science has not changed much over the years.”

Though there may be some debate over whether the field of science is as inaccessible for women today as it was for Lise Meitner, one Yale professor — who happened to be in the audience at a showing in Göteborg, Sweden — was so affected by the play’s presentation of Meitner’s story that he invited the group back to America to perform here in New Haven. Francesco Iachello, J.W. Gibbs Professor of Physics and Chemistry and first-ever recipient of the Lise Meitner Medal, cited Meitner as “one of the most important figures in twentieth-century science.”

“[I] thought that it could be an inspiration for all women scientists at Yale, especially young women scientists at the beginning of their careers,” Iachello said in an e-mail. “[It is] also a reminder of the prejudices against women that dominated the physics world in the early twentieth century, in spite of the great successes of Marie Curie.”

However, “Remembering Miss Meitner” does more than just protest the injustices against the women of Meitner’s time. Friedman insists that the play “is about something more important than winning or not winning the Nobel Prize.”

“For Meitner, the real heartbreak was not so much just not winning, but the way colleagues treat one another and what happens when collegiality falls by the wayside,” Friedman said.

The collegiality that failed to come to Meitner’s defense, however, is in full abundance among the actors, scriptwriter and director of the play, making it what Friedman described as “special” and “very collaborative.” Ingemar Carlehed, who plays Otto Hahn, also happily described the collaboration between the actors and scriptwriter.

“This play is written for these three actors,” Carlehed said, referring to himself, Karlberg and Inger Hayman, who will play Lise Meitner. “We worked together with Robert to come up with the idea for the play and Robert wrote it.”

“I was actually fearful of writing about this,” Friedman said, laughing. “One of the physics professors in Sweden was hoping to encourage young women to study in physics, but that’s where [Meitner] was stabbed in the back.”

“But she became part of a first-rate ranking of scientists,” he added. “Physics was her one love, her only love. I guess just as sometimes those whom we love can disappoint us, it doesn’t mean that all of the good aspects are negated.”

“Remembering Miss Meitner” will play at The New Theater in Green Hall tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m.

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