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Myth or Reality?
on March 7, 2009
For decades after the end of the WWII there has been a debate among the physicists and science/history researchers about the reasons why Germany didn't manage to develop a nuclear weapon in the 1940's. This was despite the fact that the Nazi regime had a six-month head-start in the uranium fission research (discovered at Otto Hahn's lab in 1938) and also among their ranks, Werner Heisenberg, one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists at the time. Bernstein's book discloses both the secret recordings and his comments, on the dialogues taken place among some ten leading German nuclear scientists who were detained after the war at the Farm Hall, England, while their conversations were bugged and transcribed without their own knowledge. (The 1945 recordings were first released in 1992 and made available in the book "Operation Epsilon" published in 1993.) Based on the documents and other assorted evidence, it appears that Heisenberg, the main scientific leader of the uranium research under the Third Reich, had largely overestimated the amount of fissionable material needed to manufacture a nuclear bomb, and so he had instead steered towards a policy-program for building a working nuclear reactor, using heavy water as moderator. However, the latter substance was never enough in his possession due to destruction of the heavy water establishment in Vemork, Norway, in 1943 by a British partisan attack. In reality, despite the popular literature concentrating on him, Heisenberg was not the primary figure pursuing the German A-bomb, rather it was Paul Harteck, a physical chemist based at Hamburg who eventually moved to the USA in 1951.
It is interesting to note, while the American scientists had resorted to highly purified graphite as a moderator, Walter Bothe in Germany via an experimental error --after Heisenberg's initial suggestion-- had excluded its usefulness. The Manhattan Project had also undertaken the gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation methods to extract U235 from U238, something only Paul Harteck and Erich Bagge among the ten detained Germans had seriously worked on, this again according to the transcribed conversations. (Harteck had also persued the centrifuge method and this process nowadays bears his name.) Aside from the technical issues, the book suggests that a couple of these scientists had barely any significant part in the uranium project, and also several were content with the assumed fact that a nuclear weapon was infeasible for Germany to produce during the war, contemplating the moral and humanistic consequences of its usage. The highlight of the transcripts is the blackboard lecture of Heisenberg for his colleagues on the days after the Hiroshima attack, in which he nearly accurately explains how such a device must have been produced. The last few documents contain the detainees' exchanges about their future life after the war, for example even going to work for the Russians, or moving to Argentina to establish the commercial uses of the new technology and to make money in the process. In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this title to all the science researchers and history enthusiasts alike.