05 December, 2016

Physics in a Mad World and Bohr's letter to Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg's birthday is an excellent chance to promote a fantastic book on history of 20st century quantum physics by Misha Shifman.

Among other things, he quotes a letter Niels Bohr sent to Werner Heisenberg in 1957, here it is in full:

Dear Heisenberg, 
I have seen a book, “Stærkere end tusind sole” [“Brighter than a thousand suns”] by Robert Jungk, recently published in Danish, and I think that I owe it to you to tell you that I am greatly amazed to see how much your memory has deceived you in your letter to the author of the book, excerpts of which are printed in the Danish edition. Personally, I remember every word of our conversations, which took place on a background of extreme sorrow and tension for us here in Denmark. In particular, it made a strong impression both on Margrethe and me, and on everyone at the Institute that the two of you spoke to, that you and Weizsäcker expressed your definite conviction that Germany would win and that it was therefore quite foolish for us to maintain the hope of a different outcome of the war and to be reticent as regards all German offers of cooperation. I also remember quite clearly our conversation in my room at the Institute, where in vague terms you spoke in a manner that could only give me the firm impression that, under your leadership, everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons and that you said that there was no need to talk about details since you were completely familiar with them and had spent the past two years working more or less exclusively on such preparations. I listened to this without speaking since [a] great matter for mankind was at issue in which, despite our personal friendship, we had to be regarded as representatives of two sides engaged in mortal combat. That my silence and gravity, as you write in the letter, could be taken as an expression of shock at your reports that it was possible to make an atomic bomb is a quite peculiar misunderstanding, which must be due to the great tension in your own mind. From the day three years earlier when I realized that slow neutrons could only cause fission in Uranium 235 and not, it was of course obvious to me that a bomb with certain effect could be produced by separating the uraniums. In June 1939 I had even given a public lecture in Birmingham about uranium fission, where I talked about the effects of such a bomb but of course added that the technical preparations would be so large that one did not know how soon they could be overcome. If anything in my behavior could be interpreted as shock, it did not derive from such reports but rather from the news, as I had to understand it, that Germany was participating vigorously in a race to be the first with atomic weapons. Besides, at the time I knew nothing about how far one had already come in England and America, which I learned only the following year when I was able to go to England after being informed that the German occupation force in Denmark had made preparations for my arrest. All this is of course just a rendition of what I remember clearly from our conversations, which subsequently were naturally the subject of thorough discussions at the Institute and with other trusted friends in Denmark. It is quite another matter that, at that time and ever since, I have always had the definite impression that you and Weizsäcker had arranged the symposium at the German Institute, in which I did not take part myself as a matter of principle, and the visit to us in order to assure yourselves that we suffered no harm and to try in every way to help us in our dangerous situation. This letter is essentially just between the two of us, but because of the stir the book has already caused in Danish newspapers, I have thought it appropriate to relate the contents of the letter in confidence to the head of the Danish Foreign Office and to Ambassador Duckwitz.

Before this letter was published in 2002, the version that Heisenberg's team was 'passively sabotaging' the German atomic bomb project was considered the most plausible one. It seems, however, that it doesn't have any solid justification.

It also seems that the idea of German superiority didn't work out quite right for them (quoting Shifman himself):

To have admitted that plutonium was used was to admit that the Allies had a vast reactor development and that everything the German scientists had worked on for so long and so hard had been insignificant. Heisenberg’s lecture, which represented the high water mark of the German understanding of nuclear weapons, shows that in the end they understood very little.
Prior to Hiroshima the Germans were absolutely convinced on the basis of their own experience that a nuclear bomb could not be built in the immediate future. Their belief was based on the idea of their superiority: they were absolutely convinced that they were ahead of everyone else in their study of nuclear chain reaction. Because they had not been able to build a nuclear reactor, they were sure that no one else had done so.

From this letter it seems clear that Heisenberg’s team worked in earnest to make the bomb. They failed not because they sabotaged the project, but because they were not qualified to solve the problems that arose in the course of their work.

In the last one, Shifman is talking about two problems:

(i) Using graphite as an absorbing medium for the nuclear reactor — the team of Walther Bothe declared it useless after giving it a try, and switched to heavy water instead. They didn't know that graphite they used was not sufficiently pure, and that graphite coming from other sources worked perfectly well for Americans.

(ii) The critical mass of uranium was miscalculated by Heisenberg, who did a rough estimate. His U.S. counterpart, Enrico Fermi, was both a brilliant theorist and experimentalist, and did a very thorough calculation.

Two more quotes:
The Farm Hall was bugged so that conversations of all detainees were recorded and transcribed. On August 6, 1945, the detained German physicists learned that a new weapon had been dropped on Hiroshima. They did not believe that it was nuclear. When they finally were persuaded that it was, they began trying to explain it. That evening, Otto Hahn and Heisenberg had a conversation. Heisenberg gave Hahn an estimate based on the data concerning the Hiroshima explosion published in newspapers. Heisenberg reasoned as follows. He knew that the Hiroshima explosion was about equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT, and he knew that this amount corresponded to the fission of about 1 kg of uranium. Then he estimated that this would require about eighty generations of fissions assuming that two neutrons are emitted per fission. He then assumed that during this process the neutrons flow out to the boundary in a random walk of eighty steps with a step length equal to the mean free path for fission. This gave him a critical radius of 54 cm and a critical mass of several tons. (The correct estimate would give 15-20 kg.)
There is one especially surreal aspect of this discussion that took place after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. The mass of material for this bomb was given in news reports and it seemed too small. The Germans indulged in all sorts of wild speculations as to why this was so. It never occurred to them that the Nagasaki bomb was made of plutonium, despite the fact that von Weizsäcker, who had introduced the idea of transuranics into the German program, was in the audience.

Take care,


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