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A Life Story Well Told Is a Story Worth Reading

Biographies of the famous and not-so-famous give meaning to everyday life

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Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics

By Ruth Lewin Sime

University of California Press, 526 pp., $34.95

George Eastman: A Biography

By Elizabeth Brayer

Johns Hopkins University Press

637 pp., $39.95

Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn

By David Hajdu

Farrar Straus Giroux

306 pp., $27.50

Robert Frost: A Biography

Jeffrey Meyers

Houghton Mifflin

424 pp., $30

Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985

Wedenfeld & Nicolson 618 pp., $45

Peggy Guggenheim: A Collector's Album

By Laurence Tacou-Rumney, Flammarion

176 pp., $45

Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke

Ralph Freedman

Farrar Straus Giroux

640 pp., $35

Some lives seem to attract shelves of biographies. Inspiring, charismatic, or mysterious personalities like the Brntes, Marie Antoinette, John F. Kennedy, and Oscar Wilde manage to fuel endless speculation, research, and interpretation. Other lives, often just as worthy, may go unrecorded and unexamined until some venturesome scholar or enthusiast takes on the challenge of digging up the available data and transforming the facts into a coherent life story.

One of the pioneers of modern nuclear physics, Lise Meitner (1878-1968) collaborated with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman in the discovery of atomic fission. Einstein called her "our Marie Curie." Yet when the Nobel Prize was awarded to Otto Hahn in 1946, her name was conspicuously absent. In Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, Ruth Lewin Sime, herself a chemist, tells the story of this woman of science, who overcame the sexist prejudices of her male colleagues only to be forced as a Jew to flee from the Nazis in 1938.

Sime's biography succeeds on a personal level, giving us a vivid picture of the Vienna-born girl, enraptured by physics, whose life experience left her deeply concerned about the dangerous potential of atomic energy. It also does a superb job of documenting the precise nature of Meitner's scientific contributions as well as her various contretemps with colleagues over political issues - such as the culpability of German scientists working for the Nazi regime in World War II.


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