December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

70 years after Hiroshima, Fatema Kassamali on a book that documents how German physicists reacted, unaware they were being bugged

Night-of-Phys-cover-644x1024Little Boy, the first atomic bomb, was dropped over Hiroshima on August the 6th 1945. To coincide with the 70th anniversary of the attack, Haus Publishing released Night of the Physicists – Operation Epsilon: Heisenberg, Hahn, Weizsäcker and the German Bomb, by Richard von Schirach, a book outlining the German attempt at developing nuclear weaponry. Aimed at an amateur historian interested in the end of WWII and the start of the Cold War, the book combines MI6 surveillance, historical narration and scientific data, and book provides a comprehensive narrative of the German scientific advancements.

By using direct quotations from Operation Epsilon, the six months during which ten key German scientists were kept under surveillance at Farm Hall, Cambridgeshire, the book is able to give a unique perspective on the German viewpoint. The scientists, unaware that their accommodation was bugged, recounted tales of their professional lives and interpersonal disputes as well as their views on the direction of the war – for example, Karl Wirtz’s disgust at the Nazi attack on a Polish girls’ school.

As they were captive from July 1945 to January 1946, the scientists were being held during that fateful time when the bomb was released. As such, the surveillance team were able to capture the full range of emotions the German team felt on that apocalyptic day. Emotions ranged from disbelief at losing the race against the Allies, to hatred, disgust and some relief from members of the team who did not want to be held responsible for such atrocities.  Through these, the book highlights the confusion among the scientific world surrounding the advent of a nuclear war. The use of the direct quotes further helps create the sense of incredulity and turmoil.

Interspersed with the historical narrative are scientific explanations outlining the work of these scientists. In contrast with the excellent historical account, the scientific sections require some level of technical knowledge in order to understand the nuances being explained. Although sometimes pictures were provided to help understanding these, this was not always the case.  I found the scientific sections were quite heavy and provided details that complicated the science more than necessary.

By starting the book with tales of individual scientists and weaving the others into the tale as they crossed paths, until all the scientists ended up at Farm Hall, von Schirach highlights the intricacies and complexities of the human side of this project. Although confusing at times, this enabled me to relate fully to the complexities of the project and see how it all fell (or didn’t fall!) into place. At other times however, this led to the tale appearing to head off on a tangent. For example, discussion of Fritz Haber and gas chambers.  Even the focus on heavy water, although this was integral to the failure of the German project, led the narrative away and it became difficult to regain the flow of the piece after the diversion.

Finally, the book suggests that it uncovers lots of unpublished material from the MI6 surveillance tapes. Whilst it is true that there are unlikely to be such a large quantity of Farm Hall quotations outside the transcripts of the surveillance tapes, Radio 4 did produce an excellent dramatised version of the events in 2010. That piece also had many of the most poignant quotes mentioned in the book, albeit they were in a vocal form rather than in written form.

Overall, the book gives an excellent insight into the minds of these famous scientists. It highlights both their personal and professional viewpoints and gives a unique view of their perceptions of the world. On a scientific level I feel that there are aspects that could be edited better, but, from both a historical and psychological point of view, it is an excellent read giving an alternative perspective to one of history’s most defining moments.

Night of the Physicists – Operation Epsilon: Heisenberg, Hahn, Weizsäcker and the German Bomb, by Richard von Schirach, Haus Publishing. ISBN: 9781908323859 pub. 6th August 2015.