Chapter 51:

Quantum Germans

If Townsend Brown knew how to build machines around the exotic theories embodied in his Structure of Space, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or, better yet, a field-effects propulsion specialist…) to realize — particularly in the context of the middle of World War II — that others forces might be in pursuit of similar technologies.

The literature is filled with all kinds of legends and stories about things that the Nazis were supposedly developing during World War II. But the minute we start talking about what the Germans were doing, we find ourselves disappearing into yet another dark corridor deep in the depths of our rabbit hole.

At first glance, much, if not most, of the intrigue regarding “secret weapons” development during WWII revolves around the common conception that, like their American counterparts, the Germans were also rushing headlong toward the development of an atomic bomb. But it’s not clear that that proposition stands up to closer scrutiny. The familiar storyline is that the defeat of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945 abruptly interrupted Germany’s atomic aspirations; But that narrative may well be what one writer has called “the Allied Legend” that was carefully crafted following the closure of World War II.

For every legend, there is often a counter legend; For every story, there is the other side of the story. Where Hitler’s pursuit of atomic weapons is concerned, there seems to be a “mainstream” version, and then there’s the “alternate press” version. It’s hard not to be skeptical of both.

The “mainstream” version begins with a logical premise: It makes perfect sense to presume that the Germans were in hot pursuit of the ultimate weapon, since the seminal discovery in the history of nuclear energy occurred in Germany.

Otto HahnIn December, 1938, the German chemist Otto Hahn and his assistant Fritz Strassman were surprised when they discovered traces of barium in a test chamber after they had bombarded a sample of uranium with “slow” neutrons. Hahn immediately wrote of his results to another colleague, Lise Meitner, an Austrian, Jewish physicist who was already living in exile in Sweden. Meitner in turn discussed Hahn’s experiments with another esteemed German physicist, her nephew Otto Frisch. Meitner and Frisch excitedly discussed Hahn’s results, and arrived at the only plausible explanation: the barium in Hahn’s apparatus was produced when the nuclei of uranium atoms were split into smaller, lighter elements as a consequence of the neutron bombardment.

To this discovery, Frisch applied the nomenclature that biologists use to describe cell division: he decided that Hahn and Strassman’s discovery should be called “nuclear fission.”

Eight months later, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, suggesting that it was….

…conceivable… that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory…

Einstein — still a pacifist at heart despite his own exile from Nazi Germany six years earlier — then goes on to encourage the President to marshal all the resources necessary to accelerate the United States’ own research into this new kind of weaponry. Einstein was motivated by his own conviction that the Germans were already well along the path toward perfecting just such a device. Indeed, he ends his letter with this subtle conclusion:

I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

Einstein’s warning to Roosevelt was clear: if the United States did not get with the program, surely the Germans would beat them to it.

Needless to say, progress advanced very rapidly from that point. In December, 1942 Enrico Fermi, another émigré from embattled Europe, constructed the first atomic pile — the first nuclear reactor — in a squash court underneath an abandoned football stadium at the University of Chicago. The Manhattan Project was already forming around a cadre of physicists — many of them exiles from Hitler’s Europe — scattered in different places around the United States. In early 1943, they all started taking permanent residence in the remote confines atop a mesa near Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Among the first who would find himself stationed in Los Alamos was was Otto Frisch, the nephew of Lise Meitner who had coined the expression “nuclear fission.” Others would quickly follow.

* * *

The history of the American nuclear effort is fairly well known now. There have been numerous books written and movies made about the Manhattan Project. But the true story of Germany’s pursuit of similar technology remains shrouded in overlapping and contradicting mysteries.

Niels BohrEinstein’s suspicions were reinforced with the arrival of Neils Bohr at Los Alamos. A native Dane, regarded as one of the originators of quantum mechanics, Bohr had been living in occupied Denmark but managed to escape with only moments to spare before being forced to “volunteer” his expertise in service of the German war effort. When he arrived at Los Alamos, Bohr confirmed the Allies’ worst fears.

According to Michael Bar-Zohar, writing in The Hunt for German Scientists,

Before leaving Denmark [Bohr] had been in touch with German physicists, and he was certain that they were hard to work to make an A-bomb. But no one knew what was really happening in Germany, just how far the development in atomic energy had advanced. It was known, however, that a few weeks after the outbreak of war, the leading atomic physicists had been banded into a “Uranium Society,” the Uran-Verein, under the direction of Weisacker and Heisenberg. It was known that the Nazis had clamped down on the export of uranium from Czechoslovakia, and that they were working the heavy water factory at Rjukan, Norway to full capacity… it was presumed that Germany was making great strides forward in the race for the atom bomb.

Werner HeisenbergWith Bohr gone from Europe, attention turned toward the one top-level German theoretical physicist who remained in Germany, Werner Heisenberg — he of “uncertainty principal” fame (the theory that says you cannot simultaneously know both the location and velocity of a subatomic particle). Heisenberg professed little allegiance with the Nazis, but considered himself a loyal German, and remained in his homeland to contribute what he could to what he considered its defense.

In the late winter and spring of 1944, the scientists and military officers who directed the Manhattan Project decided they needed to find out for themselves the extent of Germany’s progress toward an atomic bomb. A new intelligence unit was formed, and preparations were made to quietly send teams first into Italy, and then into Germany, to obtain first hand information. The new unit was called “Alsos,” which is the Greek word for “grove” — which, not coincidentally, was the surname of the American officer charged with coordinating the Manhattan Project, Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves.

Alsos is unique in the annals of intelligence gathering operations, because it combined expertise in physics with military commando skills, like “Mata Hari with a physics degree,” according to one Manhattan Project scientist. Accordingly, control of Alsos was Pash & Goudsmith in Germany in 1944built around two commanders: The scientific component was supervised by
Dr. Samuel Goudsmit, a Dutch physicist with his own first hand knowledge of personnel and activities within Germany. The military aspects were administered by Lieutenant Colonel Boris Pash, the colorful son of Russian immigrants with a background that stretched from fitness training in Hollywood to security for the Manhattan project. Together, Goudsmit and Pash undertook the mission to find out exactly how far along Heisenberg and the Germans were toward building an atomic bomb.

The Alsos teams slipped into Europe in the fall of 1944. In November, after finding a handful of German scientists at the University of Strasbourg, on the Franco-German border, a surprising picture of nuclear research in Germany began to emerge: The German scientists, it turns out, were still having great difficulty in separating uranium isotopes. Their first experimental uranium pile had only recently been achieved — in August 1944 — whereas the Americans had passed that important milestone two years earlier.

Thus, the big discovery of Alsos was that there was no German bomb project to speak of.
As Bar-Zohar writes, suddenly, “The terrifying spectre of a German atomic attack had evaporated.”

Historians cite a variety of reasons why Germany was not farther along in its nuclear research by the time the Allies started closing in: Obviously, many of the Fatherland’s brightest lights had long since fled, taking their expertise across the Atlantic and into the New Mexico desert. Much of the young talent that remained was siphoned off and fed into the Nazi war machine rather than being permitted to continue their studies or contribute to institutional research efforts. Furthermore, there was an abiding distrust on the part of the German high command toward the eccentric, brainy types. And as the Reich began to crumble, the military turned toward more readily achievable priorities, directing their diminishing resources toward weaponry like the V-1 and V-2 rocket bombs, that could be put into the field more quickly than an exotic device like a bomb that might take so long to perfect that there would be no Third Reich left to deploy it for.

But the real reason why Germany was not farther along may have been something more fundamental, if not slightly sinister: the wholesale dismissal of Einstein’s theories as “Jewish physics.”

* * * *

A few months after my correspondence with Morgan had begun, he introduced me to a colleague, somebody who he had worked with in the field over the years and, I would eventually learn, somebody who had also worked closely with Townsend Brown in a number of different capacities This individual was introduced to me with the code-name “Boston.” Readers of Chapter 42 will recognize him as “O’Riley.”

Conveniently, my correspondence with “Boston” started about the same time that I was beginning to learn from a variety of sources about the nagging disparities that keep the physics of relativity at arms length from the physics of quantum mechanics. There are areas, I was learning, where the physics of the macrocosm fail to translate into the physics of the microcosm — which presents a dilemma among a community of experts who expect all their “laws” to apply uniformly regardless of scale.

Reconciling these inconsistencies, between relativity and quantum mechanics, is the rationale for the latest hypothecations, the “new” school of physics known as “String Theory” has gained great popularity in the past few years thanks to the popular writings of Brian Greene (Fabric of the Cosmos, The Elegant Universe) and others (Lately, even String Theory has undergone its own rash of debunking, but that’s another story altogether…).

And while I was in the midst of absorbing all that, I had also recently made one of my first attempts to reckon with Dr. Brown’s own Structure of Space and could see some of the similarities between Brown’s ideas and those embodied in some aspects of quantum mechanics and string theory. Particularly, it is intriguing to see some quantum physicists acknowledge the existence of “the thing that is nothing” that occupies the otherwise empty space between the nucleus and the electron shell on the microcosmic scale, and between planets, stars, and galaxies on the macrocosmic scale: In quantum mechanics or string theory, it’s called the “Higgs Ocean” or the “Dirac Sea;” Others speak of the “Zero Point Field.” Whatever “it” is, the "string" people say, just don’t call it “aether” — like Townsend Brown did, and others still do. But still… it must be…. something.

And, as if al that wasn't enough for my exploding brain, while I was reading about the discrepancies between relativity and quantum physics, I encountered a passage in Nick Cook’s book. The Hunt For Zero Point had already become something of a benchmark, a recurring point of reference — first between Morgan and I, and now Boston and I — if for no other reason than because it includes a fairly comprehensive compilation of all the existing mythos regarding Townsend Brown. In the middle of February in 2005, we were talking about a passage that appears on page 194. Here, Nick Cook is talking to Igor Witkowski, the Polish researcher who had introduced Cook to ‘Die Glock’ — the infamous “Nazi Bell”:

"The Germans ignored Einstein and developed an approach to gravity based on quantum theory,” Witkowski said. “Don’t forget that Einstenian physics, relativity physics, with its big-picture view of the universe, represented Jewish science to the Nazis. Germany was where quantum mechanics was born. The Germans were looking at gravity from a different perspective to everyone else. Maybe that gave them answers to things the pro-relativity scientists hadn’t even thought of.”

By now, I had read more than once that that German officialdom in the 1930s held little esteem for Einstein and his “Jewish physics.” And suddenly I found myself wondering if I’d stumbled on to an important clue: Could it be that — while the path of “relativity” leads to various kinds of nuclear energy scenarios like reactors and bombs — the path of path of quantum mechanics leads to even more intriguing (if not potentially lethal) possibilities?

In a message to Boston on Feb 18, 2005, I shared this observation:

Physics split off in two directions in the 1930s. One fork in the road followed the path of relativity; the other followed the path of quantum mechanics. Because the Germans dismissed relativity as "Jewish physics," their scientists were encouraged to follow the quantum path, which gave them a big head start on things that their British and American counterparts were not attuned to — except, perhaps, for Townsend Brown and a few of his colleagues…

“Does that sound about right?” I asked in closing that particular message. Within a few minutes I had my reply:

“Not just about right,” Boston wrote. “Dead on right. I feel like Henry Higgins: ‘By George, I think she's got it!’ Don't know if you recognize that scene but the same amount of dancing around the den is occurring here. Thank you. I believe “You've got it!”

* * *

The Alsos missions culminated in May, 1945. The day after Germany’s surrender on May 8th, Werner Heisenberg himself —the German equivalent of the Manhattan Project’s enigmatic Dr. Robert Oppenheimer — was captured at his chalet in Bavaria by Boris Pash and a small squad of American soldiers.

Of course, by the time Heisenberg was captured, the Americans were already convinced that the Germans were far from producing any atomic weapons. The reason for Heisenberg’s apparent failure in the pursuit remains controversial to this day: Advocates say Heisenberg had deep reservations at the thought of anything as deadly as a nuclear device falling into Hitler’s hands, and so deliberately stalled the project by whatever means he could. On the other hand, detractors have said that Heisenberg wanted to build a bomb, but had an inadequate grasp of the actual physics involved. Heisenberg himself maintained that the circumstances of the simply war prevented him from making any real progress even if he had wanted to.

But all the focus on Heisenberg and atomic bombs overlooks another important consideration. The Alsos expedition was focused on finding the German bomb because that was all that was on their radar. The Americans were trying to build a bomb, and they wanted to know if the Germans were trying to build a bomb. And once they determined that the German bomb effort had fallen behind their own, they stopped asking questions.

Nobody ever asked Heisenberg or any of his colleagues: just what else might the “quantum Germans” have been working on?

While the Alsos teams scoured the German countryside looking for evidence of an atomic bomb project on the ground, perhaps the answer to that question was starting to show up in the skies overhead.


Care to discuss this chapter? Please visit the forums

Next Chapter



© 2005-2006-2007-2008 - Paul Schatzkin/Tanglewood Books. All Rights Reserved. ANY reproduction of this material without the express, written permission of the author will be dealt with severely. Contact: Contact via e-mail



Return to