Entranced by Research: Hannah’s War is not a Simple Biopic

Ruth Lewin Sime’s ground-breaking non-fiction book Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, along with Meitner’s Letters and Diaries, were the building blocks for Hannah Weiss’s story. 

I realized very quickly, however, that I was not going to write a simple biopic about Lise Meitner.

I had become entranced by my research and envisioning of the utterly improbable, pressure-cooker world of Los Alamos, New Mexico where scientists were racing against time to crack the heart of the atom before the Nazis. An intense working environment of six thousand scientists, an incubator of geniuses, some of whom had literally escaped death by leaving Germany. By night they were indulging in debauched revelry to escape from the high stress of intense work, the moral ambiguities of their goal, and the uncertainty of life in a time of war.

“All images courtesy of the Los Alamos Historical Society”

I’d never read about Los Alamos in a work of fiction; had never seen it portrayed on film or television (although there was, in fact, a short-lived but excellent series called Manhattan, 2014 – 2015, that you can now find on Hulu

it seemed like an ideal setting for all the things that interested me: compelling characters in a complex emotional drama, on an epic canvas of moral, political, and social resonance; people whose lives are swept up in one of history’s most brutal moments.

With nuclear proliferation once again on the front pages, the story of Los Alamos seemed timelier than ever; the ideal moment to explore not only the science, engineering, and history of the bomb, but also the political and moral controversies that have shadowed it.

I read Freeman Dyson whose lyrical and luminous prose captured the elegance and musicality of science as no other writer. Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize winning doorstopper of a book The Making of the Atomic Bomb became my dog-eared Bible. Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen introduced me to the enigmatic Dr. Werner Heisenberg, the Head of Research for the German’s Atomic Bomb Program. Thomas Powers’ Heisenberg’s War revealed the secret history of the German bomb.