Author Archives: Eva Amsen

Lise Meitner

I’m taking a writing class at the moment, and one of the assignments was to write a profile about Lise Meitner:

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

Lise Meitner with Otto Hahn

On Christmas Eve, 1938, sitting on a tree trunk in the snow in Sweden, Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch figured out the mechanism of nuclear fission. They had gone for a walk during a family holiday to discuss a letter Meitner had received from her colleague Otto Hahn. He asked for her opinion on a strange scientific phenomenon he had discovered.

Until a few months earlier, Meitner and Hahn had worked closely together at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) in Berlin, where they studied the effect of bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons.

Meitner had moved to Berlin shortly after completing her doctorate degree in her birth city of Vienna. She was one of the first women to reach this level of academia, and encountered some archaic attitudes and ideas: in Berlin, she worked unsalaried for a few years, and was occasionally expected to entertain the wives of visiting physicists while the men talked about science.

During the three decades she worked in Berlin, Meitner made Germany her home, but when the Second World War edged closer, it was no longer safe for Jewish people in Germany. With her piercing brown eyes, dark frizzy hair and pronounced nose, Meitner’s heritage was unmistakable. She fled to Sweden in July 1938, with help from an international group of friends and colleagues from the physics community.

Now, six months later, Hahn’s curious letter had reached her. He described how, after another round of shooting neutrons at uranium, he discovered barium in the reaction mixture. Where had it come from? Pondering this question with Frisch during their winter walk, Meitner realised that the neutron in Hahn’s experiment must have split the uranium atom in half. This would leave two smaller atoms in its place, which would continue to produce even smaller atoms, and generate large amounts of energy.

The discovery came at a dangerous time: Could the Nazis use this technology to create a weapon? The USA quickly launched the Manhattan Project to ensure they were the first to build an atomic bomb. Meitner was invited to join, but she refused. She didn’t want to be part of such a violent application of her discovery – not even to defeat the enemy who had chased her out of Germany.

After the war, Meitner spent several months in the USA as part of a visiting professorship. She was named Woman of the Year there, in 1946, and was interviewed by Eleanor Roosevelt for NBC radio.  Roosevelt told her: “We are proud of your contributions as a woman in science”.

Meitner continued to inspire women in science throughout her retirement years. A photo taken at Bryn Mawr, in 1959, shows her sitting casually on the steps of a university building. Her frizzy hair now grey, but with the same dark piercing eyes, she is surrounded by students in long floral skirts who have come to hear her fascinating stories.

Maybe she told them about the time she went for a walk with her nephew, through the snow in a cold Swedish winter. Or maybe they asked her about that other winter in Sweden, when in December 1945, Hahn – and Hahn alone – received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry at the award ceremony in Stockholm.

It’s an oversight that’s still often mentioned, especially in the context of continuing challenges to retain women at the top level of science.  But even without a Nobel Prize, Meitner was well-respected, and happy to sit down for a chat about her work: in the snow with her nephew, on the radio with a former president’s wife, or casually outside on the steps with admiring students.

Image: Meitner and Hahn. Public domain, via Wikimedia. Other image described in the text was not free to use, so click that text for a link.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

“Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is closed until further notice”, says the website for the Oregon bird sanctuary.

This is the refuge that is currently being held by an armed group. There is much circulating online about the fact that they have guns and want snacks, but very little is mentioned about the location.

Some unarmed occupants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Some unarmed occupants of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The Malheur Refuge was originally founded in 1908, and has expanded since then by government purchase of surrounding lands. This is ultimately what the group holding fort in the wildlife center is acting against: they are acting on behalf of ranchers who want their land back – not just this land, but land in other locations as well.

So why has the wildlife refuge been buying these lands? Conservation.

In the late 19th century, many birds in the area fell prey to hunters who gathered their feathers to sell to the hat industry. The white heron population almost entirely disappeared during this time. Rather than sitting idly by as their local fauna was turned into hats and fascinators, locals took action. Wildlife photographers and the Oregon Audubon Society lobbied for the creation of a preservation area, and in 1908 President Roosevelt established what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

These days, the area supports “between 5 and 66 percent of the Pacific Flyway’s migrating populations for priority waterfowl” and “over 20 percent of the Oregon population of breeding greater sandhill cranes”. It’s a major bird habitat, but it’s also home to many species of mammals, fish, and insects.

Researchers make use of the refuge for moth, bee and bat inventory studies. According to a recent study, Malheur is one of the few places in the Pacific North-West where the canyon bat is found.

If you want to see the bats or birds on the refuge, you’re going to have to wait for the occupation to end. Don’t send snacks.


Image by Barbara Wheeler, CC-BY via Wikimedia.



Of Mice and Men – a poem

Every line in this poem is the title of a scientific article. References below. Reposted from

mouseOf mice and men?1

Of mice and men.2
Of mice and men, metals and mutations.3
Of mice and men, corticosteroids, and vicarious participation.4
Of mice and men–universality and breakdown of behavioral organization.5
Of mice and men: the riddle of tubular regeneration.6

Of mice and men: the human sciences and the humanities.7
Of mice and men: skin cells, stem cells and ethical uncertainties.8
Of mice and men. 9

Of mice and men, rats, and atherosclerosis. 10
Of mice, cats, and men: is human breast cancer a zoonosis?11
Of mice and men. 12

Of mice and men: a model of HIV encephalitis.13
Of mice and men: murine models of anti-GBM antibody nephritis.14
Of mice and men: genetic skin diseases of keratin.15
Of mice and men. Honesty and integrity in medicine.16

Of mice and men.17
Of digital mice and men. 18
Of cholesterol-free mice and men. 19
Of (stressed) mice and men.20
Of (only) mice and men.21
Of mice and men…but so much more too!22

Of mice, men, and physicians.23
Of mice, men, and trypanosomes.24
Of mice, men, and cholesterol.25
Of mice, men and the genome.26

Of mice and men, and chandeliers.27
Of mice and men…and elephants. 28
Of mice and men – and lopsided birds. 29
Of mice and men: the road to tolerance. 30

Of mice and men: the evolving phenotype of aromatase deficiency.31
Of mice and men: an introduction to mouseology or, anal eroticism and Disney.32

Of mice, and other beasts, and men. 33
Of mice and men (and cows and cats)34
Of mice–and rats, dogs, rabbits, cats, and monkeys–and men.35
Of fruit flies, mice, and men: the illicit review of science. 36
Of flies, mice, and men.37
Of mice and men.38

Of mice and men…and broken hearts.39
Of mice and men: the tale of two therapies.40

Of mice and men: the mice were right.41

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Fossil Butte


This is not one of Michele’s snaps from Finland, but rather a picture of Fossil Butte National Park in Wyoming. Fifty million years ago, this area looked VERY different. It was a lot warmer, and there was a lake. We know this because this particular lake has left behind some extremely well conserved fossils.

Prehistoric horse found at Fossil Lake.

Prehistoric horse found at Fossil Lake.

When railroad workers in the 19th century visited the area, they noticed so many fossils that they named the nearby settlement “Fossil”.

Fish from Fossil Lake

Fish from Fossil Lake

The fossils from this region are so well conserved because the ancient lake was rich in calcium carbonate. Layers of calcium carbonate would settle on newly dead animals that had sunk to the bottom of the lake, and over the years this created well-preserved fossils set in limestone.


The species found in the limestone are familiar – similar to many creatures alive today – but unexpected for Wyoming. There are crocodiles and palm trees, for example. It suggests that back then, the climate in Wyoming would have been more like that of Florida today.


To see the fossils from Fossil Lake, you can visit Fossil Butte National Park in Wyoming, or see a large collection of the fossils at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Crocodile and palm tree photos are both CC-BY-SA (according to Field Museum usage terms) taken by Eva Amsen.  Other photos are public domain, via National Park Service.

Action Potential Lab

Imagine a cross between 826 stores, the Wellcome Collection, makerspaces and the best birthday parties you remember from your childhood. That’s Action Potential Lab. Located in a century-old pharmacy building in Toronto, Action Potential Lab welcomes kids and adults to explore the intersection of art and science.


Lisa Carrie Goldberg started Action Potential Lab when she returned to Toronto after eight years studying in Boston and Perth. When I visited Toronto recently, I dropped by the lab to meet her. Even though I was there after hours, Lisa’s day was far from over, and she had to briefly interrupt our conversation to receive some samples for an upcoming thermochromatic dye screenprinting workshop. She had a few minutes for an interview, though:

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