During World War II, a group of scientists led by Werner Heisenberg worked on designing a nuclear weapon for Nazi Germany. They were, thankfully, unsuccessful. After the war, the Allies detained ten German scientists in England for six months. Hoping to learn about the German bomb program, they secretly taped the scientists’ conversations. In August 1945, the scientists were told about the US dropping a nuclear bomb on Japan. Here’s a transcript of the resulting reaction and conversation.
Shortly before dinner on the 6th August I informed Professor HAHN that an announcement had been made by the B.B.C. that an atomic bomb had been dropped. HAHN was completely shattered by the news and said that he felt personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it was his original discovery which had made the bomb possible. He told me that he had originally contemplated suicide when he realized the terrible potentialities of his discovery and he felt that now these had been realized and he was to blame. With the help of considerable alcoholic stimulant he was calmed down and we went down to dinner where he announced the news to the assembled guests.
“Professor HAHN” is Otto Hahn, who co-discovered nuclear fission in Germany right before the war and won the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for it. The rest of the world may have gotten there eventually, but think of how different the war (and resulting Cold War period) would have been if Germany had sequestered their scientific progress a couple years earlier or if Hahn and Lise Meitner had made the discovery a year or two later.
WEIZSÄCKER: I think it’s dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.
HEISENBERG: One can’t say that. One could equally well say “That’s the quickest way of ending the war.”
HAHN: That’s what consoles me.
HAHN: I was consoled when, I believe it was WEIZSÄCKER said that there was now this uranium - I found that in my institute too, this absorbing body which made the thing impossible consoled me because when they said at one time one could make bombs, I was shattered.
WEIZSÄCKER: I would say that, at the rate we were going, we would not have succeeded during this war.
WEIZSÄCKER: It is very cold comfort to think that one is personally in a position to do what other people would be able to do one day.
I particularly like Heisenberg’s distinction between between theoretical and applied science:
There is a great difference between discoveries and inventions. With discoveries one can always be skeptical and many surprises can take place. In the case of inventions, surprises can really only occur for people who have not had anything to do with it. It’s a bit odd after we have been working on it for five years.
If this stuff interests you at all, I’d highly recommend reading Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. (via real future)
Update: The complete transcripts of the secret recordings were collected into a book called Hitler’s Uranium Club. The story of the Allied sabotage of a key element in producing a German bomb is told in Neal Bascomb’s The Winter Fortress. Alex Wellerstein writes that the Nazis didn’t know very much about the Manhattan Project. (via @CarnegieDeputy, @hellbox, @AtomicHeritage)
Last month I shared a video showing the thousands of nuclear weapons that humans have detonated on Earth. I hadn’t really thought about it too much apart from the two dropped in Japan in WWII, but those weapons created some permanent physical changes in the landscape of the Earth. For instance, dozens of circular scars are visible at this testing range in Nevada near Area 51.
Also located in the same area is the Sedan Crater, the largest man-made crater in the United States. The crater is 320 feet deep, 1280 feet across, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and was made by a thermonuclear device with a 104 kiloton yield detonated in 1962.
Now, I haven’t read a whole lot about nuclear tests, but this one seems particularly idiotic. The purpose of the Sedan shot was not to test a new kind of weapon or to determine the effects of the bomb, but to move earth. Yeah, no big deal, we’re just gonna use a fusion bomb like a big stick of dynamite. Sedan was part of Operation Plowshare, an effort to use nuclear devices for peaceful purposes like mining and moving earth. From Wikipedia:
Proposed uses for nuclear explosives under Project Plowshare included widening the Panama Canal, constructing a new sea-level waterway through Nicaragua nicknamed the Pan-Atomic Canal, cutting paths through mountainous areas for highways, and connecting inland river systems. Other proposals involved blasting underground caverns for water, natural gas, and petroleum storage. Serious consideration was also given to using these explosives for various mining operations. One proposal suggested using nuclear blasts to connect underground aquifers in Arizona. Another plan involved surface blasting on the western slope of California’s Sacramento Valley for a water transport project.
The Pan-Atomic Canal! This quaint US government video has more on Sedan:
In my post the other day, I said that the Soviets didn’t care about their citizenry when testing nuclear devices. Apparently the US didn’t either: the Sedan shot — the purpose of which, as a reminder, was to move a bunch of dirt — resulted in a significant amount of nuclear fallout, about 7% of the total radioactive fallout generated by all the nuclear tests in Nevada. Fallout from the test reached as far as West Virginia and was particularly high in counties in Iowa and Illinois. Buy hey, they moved 12 million tons of soil! (via @kyledenlinger)
From Orbital Mechanics, a visualization of the 2153 nuclear weapons exploded on Earth since 1945.
2153! I had no idea there had been that much testing. According to Wikipedia, the number is 2119 tests, with most of those coming from the US (1032) and the USSR (727). The largest device ever detonated was Tsar Bomba, a 50-megaton hydrogen bomb set off in the atmosphere above an island in the Barents Sea in 1961. Tsar Bomba had more than three times the yield of the largest bomb tested by the US. The result was spectacular.
The fireball reached nearly as high as the altitude of the release plane and was visible at almost 1,000 kilometres (620 mi) away from where it ascended. The subsequent mushroom cloud was about 64 kilometres (40 mi) high (over seven times the height of Mount Everest), which meant that the cloud was above the stratosphere and well inside the mesosphere when it peaked. The cap of the mushroom cloud had a peak width of 95 kilometres (59 mi) and its base was 40 kilometres (25 mi) wide.
All buildings in the village of Severny (both wooden and brick), located 55 kilometres (34 mi) from ground zero within the Sukhoy Nos test range, were destroyed. In districts hundreds of kilometers from ground zero wooden houses were destroyed, stone ones lost their roofs, windows and doors; and radio communications were interrupted for almost one hour. One participant in the test saw a bright flash through dark goggles and felt the effects of a thermal pulse even at a distance of 270 kilometres (170 mi). The heat from the explosion could have caused third-degree burns 100 km (62 mi) away from ground zero. A shock wave was observed in the air at Dikson settlement 700 kilometres (430 mi) away; windowpanes were partially broken to distances of 900 kilometres (560 mi). Atmospheric focusing caused blast damage at even greater distances, breaking windows in Norway and Finland. The seismic shock created by the detonation was measurable even on its third passage around the Earth.
The Soviets did not give a fuck, man…what are a few thousand destroyed homes compared to scaring the shit out of the capitalist Amerikanskis with a comically large explosion? Speaking of bonkers Communist dictatorships, the last nuclear test conducted on Earth was in 2013, by North Korea.
In August of 1946, the New Yorker dedicated an entire issue to a piece called Hiroshima by John Hersey. As an introduction, the editors wrote:
TO OUR READERS. The New Yorker this week devotes its entire editorial space to an article on the almost complete obliteration of a city by one atomic bomb, and what happened to the people of that city. It does so in the conviction that few of us have yet comprehended the all but incredible destructive power of this weapon, and that everyone might well take time to consider the terrible implications of its use. The Editors.
For the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, the New Yorker has digitized Hersey’s piece. The piece is quite long (30,000 words) so it can also be found in book form if that’s easier to read. Here’s the opening paragraph to get you going:
At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office and was turning her head to speak to the girl at the next desk. At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was settling down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi on the porch of his private hospital, overhanging one of the seven deltaic rivers which divide Hiroshima; Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen, watching a neighbor tearing down his house because it lay in the path of an air-raid-defense fire lane; Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined in his underwear on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house, reading a Jesuit magazine, Stimmen der Zeit; Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors with a blood specimen for a Wassermann test in his hand; and the Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house in Koi, the city’s western suburb, and prepared to unload a handcart full of things he had evacuated from town in fear of the massive B-29 raid which everyone expected Hiroshima to suffer. A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition — a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next — that spared him. And now each knows that in the act of survival he lived a dozen lives and saw more death than he ever thought he would see. At the time, none of them knew anything.
The piece made quite an impression upon its release, which you can read about on Wikipedia.
Soon after the US dropped two nuclear bomb on Japan in 1945, a group of physicists at the University of Pennsylvania decided to investigate for themselves how nuclear fission and the bomb might work using non-classified materials. In doing so, they ventured into classified territory and raised questions about the nature of science and secrecy.
To what degree would nuclear research become shackled by the requirements of national security? Would the open circulation of new scientific knowledge cease if that knowledge was relevant to nuclear fission? Those questions were hardly idle speculation: From the fall of 1945 through the summer of 1946, the US Congress was crafting new, unprecedented legislation that would legally define the bounds of open scientific research and even free speech. The idea of restricting open scientific communication “may seem drastic and far-reaching,” President Harry S. Truman argued in an October 1945 statement exhorting Congress to rapid action. But, he said, the atomic bomb “involves forces of nature too dangerous to fit into any of our usual concepts.”
The former Manhattan Project scientists who founded what would eventually become the Federation of American Scientists were adamantly opposed to keeping nuclear technology a closed field. From early on they argued that there was, as they put it, “no secret to be kept.” Attempting to control the spread of nuclear weapons by controlling scientific information would be fruitless: Soviet scientists were just as capable as US scientists when it came to discovering the truths of the physical world. The best that secrecy could hope to do would be to slightly impede the work of another nuclear power. Whatever time was bought by such impediment, they argued, would come at a steep price in US scientific productivity, because science required open lines of communication to flourish.
At the University of Pennsylvania were nine scientists sympathetic to that message. All had been involved with wartime work, but in the area of radar, not the bomb. Because they had not been part of the Manhattan Project in any way, they were under no legal obligation to maintain secrecy; they were simply informed private citizens. In the fall of 1945, they tried to figure out the technical details behind the bomb.
In remembrance of the mass destruction of life and property due to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima 64 years ago today, The Big Picture presents a typically excellent selection of photos.
Update: From Design Observer about a year ago, Hiroshima, The Lost Photographs.
A month after the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, the US government imposed a code of censorship in Japan, which means that photos of the effects of the nuclear device are somewhat difficult to come by. Enter diner owner Don Levy of Watertown, MA.
One rainy night eight years ago, in Watertown, Massachusetts, a man was taking his dog for a walk. On the curb, in front of a neighbor’s house, he spotted a pile of trash: old mattresses, cardboard boxes, a few broken lamps. Amidst the garbage he caught sight of a battered suitcase. He bent down, turned the case on its side and popped the clasps.
He was surprised to discover that the suitcase was full of black-and-white photographs. He was even more astonished by their subject matter: devastated buildings, twisted girders, broken bridges — snapshots from an annihilated city. He quickly closed the case and made his way back home.
The photographs were taken by the US Strategic Bombing Survey immediately after the war and are now in the possession of the International Center of Photography. A copy of a report made by the US Strategic Bombing Survey is available online at the Truman Library.
An account of the discovery of Einsteinium and Fermium, elements 99 and 100 on the periodic table. They were generated by the detonation of Mike, the first hydrogen bomb to be tested.
Los Alamos From Below: Reminiscences 1943-1945, by Richard Feynman. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the first atomic bomb test which bomb Feynman helped build.
George Weller was the first foreign reporter to visit Nagasaki after the atomic bomb was dropped. For the first time, these are his reports from there, which at the time were censored by the US military.