By Ann Finkbeiner | March 1, 2013 | 17 Comments
You probably know this. In August, 1939, Einstein wrote a letter to the American government. German scientists had announced that the energy holding an atom together could be released – in fact, 2.2 pounds-worth of uranium atoms would equal 10,000 tons of TNT. Einstein said this implied a new kind of bomb that Hitler’s government was surely building. In December, 1941, the American physicists figured out how to build one themselves and coalesced under the auspices of the Manhattan Project. The feeling on the Manhattan Project, wrote one physicist’s wife, was, “You’ve got to get it done; others are working on it; Germans are working on it; hurry! hurry! hurry!” In August, 1945, American atomic bombs flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a couple hundred thousand people died. One Manhattan Project scientist said, “Now we are all sons of bitches.”
You might not know this. In April, 1945, the Alsos mission run by American scientist/spies scooped up the German atomic scientists, imprisoned them for six months in an English country house called Farm Hall, bugged their rooms and taped their conversations. Turns out the German scientists had never gotten anywhere near a bomb. In 1992, the transcripts were made public.
Dear God, somebody get hold of those transcripts and write a play!
And an historian of physics named David Cassidy did, only he won’t let me see it. It’s still a work in progress, he says, and “it keeps changing so often I wonder if it will ever reach its final state.” He began by narrowing the 10 captured German scientists, who called themselves the Uranium Club and included three Nobel Prize winners and one Nazi, down to 5: two theorists who were aristocratic and arrogant – and German physicists had arrogance nailed for all time – and two experimentalists who were middle-class and down-market and came much closer to figuring out the bomb; and poor Otto Hahn, who in 1939 had been interested only in pure research into why atoms were falling apart.
“They arrive at Farm Hall convinced of their superiority in fission research,” says Cassidy. In fact, their conviction that they were ahead of the Americans meant that they hadn’t worked hard on a bomb, whereas the American conviction that they were behind the Germans meant that they worked hell for leather. Anyway, at Farm Hall, the Uranium Club settles in. They have breakfast, they work in their rooms, they play fistball, they have lunch, they go back to their rooms, they have coffee, they listen to radio concerts, they have dinner, they play cards or the piano until bedtime; and once a week, they give each other a physics lecture; they count calories. They do this for months.
On August 6, 1945, BBC radio anounced Hiroshima. At first the Uranium Club doesn’t believe it and its various members begin a long argument. “They realized that they had failed and their country had failed,” writes Jeremy Bernstein in Hitler’s Uranium Club, an extremely annotated transcript of the Farm Hall tapes. “They blame each other. They blame Hitler. They blame the Americans. The young blame the old. The old blame each other.” Hahn says he thanked God on bended knee that “we did not make the uranium bomb,” but the others worry he will hurt himself and keep watch over him that night. The same night, an experimentalist is heard to be crying because he failed. For months they talk a lot of physics, discussing where they went wrong and how the American must have done it. Eventually they more or less agree on a story, which one of them called the Lesart, German for “version”: “the reason we didn’t do it,” says theorist Carl von Weiszäcker, “was because all the physicists didn’t want to do it, on principle.” That is, they dragged their feet on purpose so Hitler wouldn’t get the bomb.
After they were released and the war was over, and the physicists of the world either went back to pure research or worked for the government on the next worst bomb or got wholesale into the business of controlling nuclear weapons, the Uranium Club’s theorists, especially von Weiszäcker and Werner Heisenberg, began spreading the Lesart. This drove American physicists crazy, probably for the obvious reasons, including not liking to be sons of bitches. Finally years later, the Farm Hall transcripts reasonably convincingly showed why the Germans didn’t build a bomb: the government wasn’t putting much money into the bomb, the experimentalists had not been doing the right experiments or paying much attention when they did, and the theorists had been getting the calculations wrong.
When the transcripts were made public in 1992, Cassidy thought it would make a great play (he’d once studied creative writing) but at the time was revising a biography of Heisenberg and eventually writing an introduction for Bernstein’s book. By 2009, he looked around thinking someone must have done the play – after all, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, also starring Heisenberg, had gone from a London-then-Broadway play to a TV movie to a radio play and is still being revived and discussed – but no one had, or he says, at least not successfully. ”Now I see why,” he says. “It is my first play, and it seems to me I couldn’t have picked a more difficult subject.” One of his main problems was the amount of physics and politics the audience has to understand before it can begin to see the conflict that leads to the climax that leads to the denouement, the Uranium Club’s failure. The play has had one staged reading in February, at the City University of New York, and already, he says, “I see that I need to enhance the dramatic effect of the fall into failure.”
A second reading will be on March 20 at a physics meeting in – joy! – my own Baltimore. I’m going. I haven’t a clue how he’s going to solve those problems but oh my, what a great idea for a play: how physicists handle their ideas’ lethal results, The Lesart and the Sons of Bitches.