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Karl Giberson

Mr. Uncertainty: Part 2: The battle over Heisenberg.

Click here for Part 1 of this article

Otto Hahn wanted to kill himself, because it was he who discovered fission, and he can see the blood on his hands. Gerlach, our old Nazi coordinator, also wants to die, because his hands are so shamefully clean.


Werner Heisenberg won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1932 (received the following year). But this is certainly not adequate to explain the continuing interest in him and his work. Five years later Clinton Davisson and George Thomson won Nobel prizes, and who has heard of them? True, Heisenberg's prize was for work on the foundations of quantum mechanics, perhaps the most exciting theory in all of science, but he had collaborators in this effort who also made large contributions—Paul Dirac, Erwin Schrodinger, Niels Bohr—yet who, while far better known than Davisson and Thomson, certainly have not generated the kind of ongoing fascination that attends Heisenberg.

The first account of the Heisenberg Affair was an article written by Heisenberg himself that grew out of discussions with fellow internees at Farm Hall. Published first in German in 1946 and then in English in 1947 in the prestigious scientific journal Nature, the article argued that the German physicists knew very early on how to build an atomic bomb but, because of moral reservations about providing Hitler with such a terrible weapon, they deliberately did not work on the bomb and even interfered from time to time by falsifying results.

This account, in which Heisenberg portrayed himself in a favorable light, was quickly challenged by the first full-length treatment of the Heisenberg Affair: Alsos, by Samuel Goudsmit, published in 1947 and recently re released with a new introduction by Heisenberg's biographer, David Cassidy. "Alsos" was the code name for the Allied mission to capture the German nuclear physicists at the end of the war. Goudsmit, the discoverer of electron spin, had himself played an important role in the development of quantum ...

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