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David C. Cassidy
Seven decades since the end of World War II and after much controversy; many books, articles, and biographies; and the release of archives of documents and the Farm Hall reports; it would seem that little remains to be said about Heisenberg and the German wartime fission project. One of the reasons for continuing discussion appears to derive from the ambiguities within what Dr. Gottstein calls “the difficult situation which one of the greatest physicists of the last century had to face under a dictatorial regime in time of war” — to which I would add, “and throughout the Third Reich.” Heisenberg’s experiences during the seven prior years of the Reich influenced and help illuminate his response to the wartime project. Yet uncovering exactly what that response was, and its possible changes over time, is hampered by crucial ambiguities, such as the Bohr visit and the critical mass puzzle, for which we have many postwar accounts but only scant primary evidence. Moreover, the Third Reich made covering up attitudes and aims a matter of survival. Nevertheless, Dr. Gottstein, a member of Heisenberg’s Max Planck Institute for Physics during the postwar years 1950-1970, has provided an important and valuable contribution to the Heisenberg discussion.
With the wealth of information and interpretation now available to us, perhaps it is time to bring this discussion to the next level. Biography and history can offer so much more than continued debate if we are willing to view Heisenberg in fully realistic terms — as one of the greatest physicists but also as one who, like so many other highly cultured individuals at the time, was over his head outside the world of physics in the dark political nightmare that was Nazi Germany. It is only reasonable that he would encounter both successes and shortcomings in such a situation. From this perspective, history and biography can provide a more rounded, multi-dimensional comprehension of Heisenberg as well as valuable lessons learned from his successes and shortcomings and even from the divergent interpretations of them. Such lessons can be of benefit not only regarding physics, but also whenever similar dark clouds begin to gather (as they threaten to do today) and as scientists continue to face the prospect of developmental research for governments and regimes of all types.
David C. Cassidy
These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.