Pok's Go Space

Lise Meitner, Albert Einstein, and early "Austrian" Go

Helmut Wiltschek's Go Stories, Part I

The history of Austrian Go dates back to the 19th century, probably as far as the Austro-Japanese friendship treaty of 1869. In the early years of the 20th century, Go became particularly popular among Austria's imperial navy. Under the leadership of Arthur Jonak von Freyenwald, called “the god of Go”, the Austro-Hungarian naval base in Pola (today in Croatia) hosted the largest Go circle in Europe before WW1. More than 200 people are said to have played Go there. At the same time, the Institute of Physics at Vienna University became a stronghold of the game of Go too. When the physicist Leopold Pfaundler published the first “Deutsche Go-Zeitung”, 1909 in Graz, eight of around 40 subscribers of this magazine were former students of physics in Vienna. The most interesting among these students was Lise Meitner (1878-1968), the “German Madame Curie” (Albert Einstein).

Lise Meitner was indeed one of the leading physicists in the first half of the 20th century. She specialised in nuclear physics and wrote the first groundbreaking treatise on nuclear fission, a term that she invented. When Otto Hahn and Fritz Straßmann received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 for the discovery of this physical phenomenon, many scientists felt that it was at least in part equally due to Lise Meitner. Much less known is the fact, that Meitner was also one of the early Austrian Go enthusiasts and certainly one of the first female players in this country. This has been reported by the late Carl Fröschl, a leading Austrian player of Go in the 1930ies to 50ies.

Lise Meitner was also well acquainted with Albert Einstein whom she met for the first time in 1909 in Salzburg. At that time, she was an assistant of Max Planck in Berlin, while Einstein was working at the university of Zurich. Two years later, however, he got an appointment to the German University of Prague that belonged to the Austrian empire at that time. The only condition was that Einstein acquired an Austrian citizenship. This was then a highly ceremonial event that obliged Einstein to dress in a “gala uniform” with golden stripes, a tricorn, and a rapier. Einstein was already notorious for his dislike of all kinds of formal dress, but he consoled himself that nobody would recognize him in this outfit taking him for some obscure “admiral from Honduras”. Thus, Albert Einstein became an Austrian citizen in the late days of the Austrian monarchy (in fact he rejected his original German citizenship but kept his Swiss one).

Later, in 1914, Einstein moved to Berlin and became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute where Lise Meitner was doing research. Together with Max Planck they organized renown seminars but they shared also some leisure time together playing the violin and - in all probability - some games of Go. Not much is known for sure about Einstein's Go activities, but many years later, in 1951 at Princeton, he was awarded a honorary shodan diploma by go master Fukuda Masayuki. Thus we can infer that he played Go at some reasonable level, and probably learned it from his colleague and friend Lise Meitner. If so, it was Lise Meitner who infected her "fellow countryman" Albert Einstein with the Austrian Go virus.

Many people would agree that Einstein and Meitner are the greatest male and female physicists of the 20th century. Many know that they were both of Jewish origin and were exiled during the Nazi regime. But Austrian Go players should keep in mind that they shared an Austrian citizenship and that they both indulged not only in playing the violin but also the game of Go!

Helmut Wiltschek, 2006

This article was given to me by Helmut Wiltschek in Oktober 2006. I slightly rearranged and shortened the text, but did not alter the content.

Pok, November 2006