Farm Hall: the Fall into Failure



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!

4469876564_a6e94e0475_zAnd 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.


Farm Hall – National Archives via Wikimedia; scene from Michael Frayn’s play, CopenhagenForge Theatre, 1/09, directed by Deb Braak, actors Bill Braak and Paul Recupero


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17 thoughts on “Farm Hall: the Fall into Failure

  1. Fascinating. I love Copenhagen, but this makes me think that it more or less lets Heisenberg off the hook … sounds like his loyalties aren’t quite as “uncertain” as the play suggests.
    May Lesart and the Sons of Bitches be produced soon!

  2. Michelle, the problem with a 1000-word post is, not much room for subtlety. I think Heisenberg’s loyalties were to 1)himself and his reputation; 2)theoretical physics; and 3)Germany — not Nazi Germany, but the old Germany. Put those together and you’ve got someone who would want to go slow on something expensive and tricky, who wouldn’t be interested in the engineering necessary for a bomb, and who would still work on it. But the person who should answer this is David Cassidy.

  3. Ah, makes sense. I think Copenhagen touches on all these loyalties, but also leaves open the possibility that he really did drag his feet on principle – am I remembering that correctly? (Maybe wishful thinking on my part.) Anyway, all so very interesting – thanks, Ann.

  4. On the “sons of bitches” comment, I did find a nice quote about this in correspondence between Kenneth Bainbridge and J. Robert Oppenheimer, in the Bainbridge papers at Harvard. The occasion was the publication of Lansing Lamont’s book, _Day of Trinity_, which included Bainbridge’s “sons of bitches” remark.

    Bainbridge to Oppenheimer, 1966: “The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.”

    Oppenheimer to Bainbridge: “When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.”

  5. Alex, don’t you think Bainbridge’s “we are all sons of bitches” beats the hell out of Oppenheimer’s “physicists have known evil”, let alone “now I am death, destroyer of worlds.” Cripes, that guy.

  6. That link didn’t work, Curious. I’d heard of that production. And Alex Wellerstein and his students did what he calls a mashup of Copenhagen and Farm Hall. Convergent evolution strikes again.

  7. Hmm..strange since it seems to work for me. Here’s the description:

    By Alan Brody
    Directed by Andy Sandberg
    March 7 – April 28, 2013
    World Premiere
    Presented by The Nora Theatre Company, a project of Catalyst [email protected]

    It’s the close of World War II – the dawn of the atomic age. The Allies have captured Germany’s top ten nuclear scientists and sequestered them at Farm Hall– a lavish estate in England – keeping them under surveillance to learn what they know about the American nuclear program and to gauge how close the Nazis are to making an atomic bomb. Nine of these men, including Nobel Prize winners Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg, are known as Hitler’s “Uranium Club.” Based on actual transcripts of secretly recorded conversations, playwright Alan Brody illuminates the ethical complexity of pursuing scientific discovery at the risk of wreaking catastrophic consequences.

    “The Nora Theatre Company is honored to be presenting the World Premiere of our friend, Alan Brody’s Operation Epsilon which enjoyed a staged reading presented by Catalyst [email protected], here in 2008. The complex ethical questions about innovation in the pursuit of science but at the expense of our humanity are questions which are as relevant today as when the German scientists were secretly recorded at the end of World War II.”

    Mary C. Huntington, Artistic Director, The Nora Theatre Company

  8. The play is completely open to the public. It’s at the Hilton Baltimore in Inner Harbor, Holiday Ballroom 4, Wed., March 20, 8:00 to 9:30 pm, and it includes an audience discussion with the director and playwright.

    A New Play by D.C. Cassidy

    It’s July 1945. Germany is in defeat and the atomic bombs are on their way to Japan. Under the direction of Samuel Goudsmit, the Allies are holding some of the top German nuclear scientists–among them Heisenberg, Hahn, and Gerlach–captive in Farm Hall, an English country manor near Cambridge, England. As secret microphones record their conversations, the scientists are unaware of why they are being held or for how long. Thinking themselves far ahead of the Allies, how will they react to the news of the atomic bombs? How will these famous scientists explain to themselves and to the world their failure to achieve even a chain reaction? How will they come to terms with the horror of the Third Reich, their work for such a regime, and their behavior during that period?

    This one-act play is based upon the transcripts of their conversations as well as the author’s historical work on the subject. Discussion of the play with the playwright and director follows after the staged reading. The performance is free and open to the public.

  10. UPDATE: They are indeed online at–The-Farm-Hall-Transcripts
    The complete transcripts are not yet online. They should be since there’s no copyright. The first link above gives a brief excerpt with references to available hard copies. Currently, the main source is Jeremy Bernstein’s edition, Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall (2000), available on Amazon etc.

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