“Hidden Powers” ​​by Jeannine Atkins; “A Storm of Horses” by Ruth Sanderson

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Hidden powers: Lise
Meitner’s appeal to science
by Jeannine Atkins; Simon & Schuster

Numerous studies have described the obstacles that many women still face in the workplace today, whether it is earning less than men for comparable work or struggling to break through the glass ceiling until to senior positions in business, law and other professions. .

A century ago it was much worse. But some women have still overcome enormous obstacles to establish themselves in fields long dominated by men.

“Hidden Powers,” the new book by Whately author Jeannine Atkins, examines the life of Lise Meitner, an early 20th-century Austrian-Swedish physicist who overcame entrenched opposition not only to women scientists, but also to women working even outside the home – and went on to do groundbreaking research into nuclear fission.

Meitner, born in Vienna in 1878 to a Jewish family, became the first woman at the University of Vienna and the second in the world to earn a doctorate in physics. She worked for many years in research and teaching in Berlin, but was forced to flee Germany to Sweden in 1938 because of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies.

The work Meitner did on radioactivity with his longtime lab partner, chemist Otto Hahn, and another German chemist would form the basis for further research that led to the development of the atomic bomb in the United States – something which deeply saddened Meitner, who has been nominated dozens of times for a Nobel Prize for his work in physics and chemistry.

Atkins, who has already written a number of books for young readers about memorable women in history, also targets this audience with “hidden powers”, and she does so in verse, like a kind of elongated prose poem. Each short chapter has its own title, and the book takes readers from Meitner’s childhood to her retirement in England in the late 1960s – she died in 1968 – where she lived with her nephew’s family.

From an early age, young Lise was interested in science and school, even though girls in late 19th century Austria were expected to become wives and mothers. Lise is discouraged by this strict gender division: “What is called ‘pride’ in boys / is called ‘boasting’ in girls. / What is called ‘humble’ in boys / can make a girl disappear.

Her father, however, encourages her to learn, giving her a science book with the periodic table of elements for her 16th birthday, and her parents support her to go to university when women in Austria are finally allowed to attend in 1900.

At the University of Vienna, where she is “The only woman in a room of a hundred men / Who studies physics,” Lise is also thrilled to read about a female physicist in France, Marie Curie, who receives a lot of praise and reviews for her work.

The story follows Lise’s move to Berlin after earning her doctorate; there, she will face more obstacles to work in physics, but she will eventually land paid jobs as a researcher and teacher.

During World War I, she served as a nurse radiology technician and was quick to oppose the war. Back in Berlin, her scientific star continues to rise, and Atkins uses clear, basic language to make Lise’s work understandable to young readers.

But when the Nazis took power in Germany in 1933, things started to go wrong: “The teachers who once welcomed Lise / with a friendly Hello Where Guten Morgan / now raise stiff arms and blow heil Hitler. / She crosses the street to avoid them. She is forced to unfurl a Nazi flag at the research institute where she works.

After World War II, Meitner would also be deeply hurt when Hahn, his longtime lab partner, received the Nobel Prize for discovering nuclear fission, and neither he nor the Nobel committee gave him any credit for his part in the discovery. discovery.

“Hidden Powers” also features portraits of many of Meitner’s colleagues such as Hahn, as well as others in his life, including his nephew, Robert Risch, who also became a physicist.

In an afterword, Atkins notes that she drew on biographies of Meitner, scholarly studies, and books on the politics and culture of 20th-century Europe to shape her story, while using “the imagination and historical interpretation” to make Meitner’s life and research engaging. for young readers.

“My hope was to honor a brilliant and courageous woman of science,” she says.

There will be a book launch for “Hidden Powers” on March 18 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley. Register for the event for free by visiting odysseybks.com/event and clicking March 18.

A Storm of Horses: The Story of Rosa Bonheur
Text and illustrations by Ruth Sanderson; Crocodile Books / Interlink Publishing

Easthampton artist and children’s book illustrator/author Ruth Sanderson has had a long love affair with horses. She drew them constantly as a child, and her first oil painting, which she completed at age 14, was also of a horse. Since then, she has written and illustrated numerous books on animals.

In his latest book, “A Storm of Horses,” for children ages 6 to 10, Sanderson offers a kind of variation on this theme. “Storm” tells the story of 19th-century French painter Rosa Bonheur, who defied the conventions of that era by painting animals – horses in particular – and outdoor scenes at a time when female artists had to capture images servants of children and families.

Sanderson, whose richly colored illustrations echo elements of Romantic-era painting, focuses her book not just on Bonheur’s early interest in art and horses, but on how she created this which the author calls his masterpiece, “The Horse Fair”, an 8-by-16 foot oil painting of a horse market in Paris in the early 1850s.

As the book shows, Bonheur finalized his painting, which was exhibited to great acclaim at a Parisian art salon, after spending countless hours at the horse market creating sketches and later small studies in animal color.

She also circumvented the ban on women going to the market – it was considered too dangerous a place for them in their long skirts – by asking the police to give her a special permit to wear trousers while she was drawing. It was illegal in France at that time, Sanderson notes, for women to wear trousers.

She includes some additional biographical information about Happiness in an afterword, and she also describes the awe she felt when she first saw “The Horse Fair” years ago at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. . This painting and Bonheur’s story became sources of inspiration for her own work, she notes.

As she writes in a concluding passage to her book, “Like the horses she loved, Rosa was also fiery and untamed by expectations. She proved that a female artist could be successful in a time when men dominated the art world and all aspects of public life.

Steve Pfarrer can be contacted at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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