For a non-Jewish Brit, Jem Rolls sure is oddly fascinated by Jewish physicists. The performance poet has been bringing solo shows to fringe festival stages across Canada in the past three years with an impressively sharp focus: profiling scientists, both of them Jewish, involved in discovering nuclear fission and atomic energy.
In his most recent show, The Walk in the Snow, Rolls, 56, tells us the oft-overlooked story of Lise Meitner, a Jewish Austrian physicist who helped give the first theoretical explanation of the fission process. Her role in working with other prominent scientists was ignored at the time; in 1945, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry to her mentor and collaborator Otto Hahn for the discovery of nuclear fission, dismissing Meitner’s involvement with him in the discovery.
The Walk in the Snow, performed by Rolls in a breathless 60 minutes, debuted at the London Fringe Festival in Ontario, and will tour to similar festivals in Ottawa the week of June 13, Regina and Winnipeg in July, and finally in Edmonton in August.
“I wrote about Meitner because history was not kind to her, despite all those 35 years of very hard work,” said Rolls. “She was determined, had a strong sense of self, and there’s a lot of injustice in how she faced sexism back then and was largely dismissed.”
Meitner also had to flee from the Nazis, which brought her to Stockholm’s Nobel Institute for Physics, but she had few resources for her research there, and felt unwelcome and isolated.
At one point, Rolls explains in his show, Meitner was visited by her nephew, Otto Frisch, a physicist who worked in Copenhagen, Denmark. They went for a walk in the snow to talk about physics and the quest to split the atom – Frisch on skis, Meitner keeping up on foot.
During their walk in the woods, they came up with the seed of an idea that would eventually lead to a paper on splitting the atom, and to divulge more about Meitner’s story would take away from poignant moments and quotes Rolls fleshes out in the show. Suffice to say, The Walk in the Snow reveals how a reserved scientist became one of the more pioneering female researchers in science.
“When you’re most remembered for not getting the Nobel Prize, you get remembered negatively,” said Rolls, referring to Meitner. “But she’s remarkable in so many ways.”
Rolls, who has performed 15 different shows across Canadian stages since 1996, has also profiled another Jewish scientist involved in nuclear physics. The Inventor of All Things, which Rolls brought to fringe festivals in 2017, revealed how Leo Szilard, a Hungarian physicist who fled Nazi Germany for the United States in 1933, became central in pushing for atomic energy, eventually helping to develop the atomic bomb.
“I’ve been telling people about Szilard and Meitner in pubs and trains long before I wrote it all down to eventually perform,” Rolls says. “They are such good stories and I knew I had to make shows out of them.”