Science & Philosophy

Bohr and Heisenberg: Splitting atoms and friendships

During peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.” – Fritz Haber

A number of people in and around the U.S. Air Force base in Alamogordo, New Mexico reported seeing a very bright light at about 5:30 AM on the 16th of July, 1945. The Manhattan District press agency assured many concerned citizens that that was nothing more than a weapons depot in the Alamo region which had blown up. No casualties or injuries, everyone was quickly assured.

While the last part of the report was definitely true, the light was a signal that a new page in history has been turned. Irreversibly and terribly. The first atom bomb was detonated. Within a month, thousands of people will be killed and two cities will be obliterated by just two bombs. Having been peppered by thousands of conventional explosives, rained upon them by fleets of B-29s and its ilk, it seemed inconsequential to worry about the two planes which appeared in the Hiroshima sky on the 6th of August, 1945. However history had changed by then and the Japanese had never got the memo.

However, history knows that the bomb not just ended those directly under the mushroom cloud, but severed ties right across the world. The bomb wasn’t humane; the people who had developed it were. Herein lay the greatest tragedy – the meek scientists, often more worried about equations and reactions in the test-tube than even their own families, suddenly had blood on their hands. They were torn and dragged, kicking and screaming, from their world into the brutal real world of politics. One had to choose sides.

* * *

Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were two giants of 20th century physics. In the 1920’s, they had given the world quantum mechanics; Heisenberg the restless young genius, Bohr the elder genial giant responsible for curbing his adventurism. The beauty of abstract mathematics had bonded them through episodes of enraged debates on the Uncertainty Principle and on the Complementarity Principle. Wave-functions, probabilities, electrons, photons, commutators and matrix mechanics – these formed their staple vocabulary; they were like a father-son duo, arguing about the deepest problems of Nature.

Cut to 1941 and everything had changed. The Nazis had occupied Bohr’s hometown, Copenhagen; Heisenberg was a German and a rumoured Nazi sympathizer, Bohr a Danish Jew. Heisenberg’s great mistake was not leaving the country in 1939 when he had a chance, just like the great Enrico Fermi had left Italy. You see, dear reader, Heisenberg was not just a mere mortal, he shouldn’t have fled Germany for his own life – he should’ve fled Germany for the sake of humanity. When the Germans would begin to make a Uranium bomb, people thought, Heisenberg would definitely lead the efforts.

History has been unfair to Heisenberg, who was even labelled as being pro-Nazi. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Heisenberg had worked on the “U-Project”, as it was known, but only to build reactors. He knew that a bomb would take enormous efforts to build and that itself would make it prohibitive; he hoped that he would never have to lead any such project. Further, he could never abandon his family. And Germany, his country, he loved with all his heart. He couldn’t imagine Germany losing and lying in tatters, but humanity demanded that Hitler lose the war. Preserving whatever was left of German science and scientists for the post-war years was his primary concern. In a 1957 letter to Dr. Robert Jungk, author of Brighter than a Thousand Suns, he makes clear his thoughts on his decision to stay.

With the beginning of the war there arose of course for every German physicist the dreadful dilemma that each of his actions meant either a victory for Hitler or a defeat of Germany, and of course both alternatives presented themselves to us as appalling… In a dictatorship active resistance can only be used by people who are perceived as participants in the system. If someone speaks publicly against the system, he most certainly is robbing himself of any possibility of active resistance… Or else, the dissident actually tries to motivate students for political action, then he would within a few days end up in a concentration camp, and even his martyr death would remain practically unknown because to speak of him is not allowed.”

Uncertainty was very real now, in the world of the big, not just a quantum rule. He must have envied the freedom of quantum particles – when there is no observer, they could be anywhere. With surreptitious microphones and the secretive Gestapo on his tail everywhere, he was always being observed. When, in 1941, he visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, he was risking his life. There is no definitive account of what the two great men said to each other, only speculations. The meeting was so dramatic that it has even inspired a documentary style movie called ‘Copenhagen – The Fallout’, with Heisenberg being portrayed by Daniel Craig.

Even the grand old man of science, Albert Einstein, was mentally severed. His equation of 1905 relating energy and mass was the one which had opened the gates; it could explain how the Sun shone and how Uranium radiated. It would later inspire particle colliders, leading to great advancements in science, but for now, it would lead to the horror of the bomb. But how was he to know? He was merely investigating Nature.

* * *

The war ended and scientists belonged to the world again. Many would never be able to do science with the same enthusiasm again, scarred beyond repair by the War. Others, like Richard Feynman, would continue to revolutionise physics, but ask in the 1950’s what the real point of all this was. Couldn’t a bomb, dropped miles away, simply blow away the bridge he was crossing? What good is civilisation and science, when they couldn’t prevent the huge number of corpses?

Heisenberg wasn’t so lucky; he had no luxury of philosophical questions. He was never welcomed into the scientific sphere. No, he hadn’t developed the bomb. But, he was old and even undergraduate students sneered at the fallen giant. Irony often assumes the protagonist’s role in history. Those that did build the bomb, which snuffed out thousands of Japanese lives, refused to shake hands with Heisenberg- the Heisenberg who had never killed anyone, and had probably stalled German progress in the Uranium project. It seemed that he belonged only to his country even when the war was over.

* * *

It is worthy to note that Bohr, as early as July 1944, wrote a prophetic memorandum to President Roosevelt advocating nuclear treaties and co-operation in dealing with nuclear power.

Many reasons, indeed, would seem to justify the conviction that an approach with the object of establishing common security from ominous menaces, without excluding any nation from participating in the promising industrial development which the accomplishment of the project entails, will be welcomed, and be met with loyal co-operation in the enforcement of the necessary far-reaching control measures.”

Sadly, the years after the war hardly heeded the Great Dane.

The war took more than just lives. It took away the innocence of humanity.

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