Chasing the shadows of Nazi scientists

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January 27, 2019
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Chasing the shadows of Nazi scientists

Sam Goudsmit and the Hunt for Hitler’s Atom Bomb by Martijn Van Calmthout, Michiel Horn (Translator), Prometheus Books, US $24.00, Pp 244, November 2018, ISBN 978-1633884502

As World War II raged, the Allies wondered if Hitler was developing atomic bombs. It was commonly believed in the West that the Nazis were developing atomic bombs. They eventually found out the evidence of Nazis’ stores of uranium ore and a nuclear reactor with the help of Dutch scientist Sam Goudsmit and his team. In Sam Goudsmit and the Hunt for Hitler’s Atom Bomb, Martijn Van Calmthout tells the story of the Dutch physicist his scientific contributions and how he followed Hitler. Sam Goudsmit came to international limelight when he co-published a seminal paper introducing the property of electron spin into atom theory that brought him at par with scientists like Einstein and Heisenberg. Being a Jew, he was not safe in Europe. In 1927, he moved to the United States and took a position at the University of Michigan. Towards the end of World War II, he was recruited by the Department of Defense as the scientific leader of the so-called Alsos mission which was tasked to find evidence of German atom-bomb project.

Van Calmthout says that Sam Goudsmit’s wartime adventure begins long before there is any consideration of an Alsos mission or secret reconnaissance in Europe. On January 8, 1941, he received a telegram in which his fellow physicist and good acquaintance Edwin Kemble of Harvard University asked him for help. The Harvard University had a shortage of professors because its top scientists were increasingly being called away to research programs of the US Army or Navy. The question posed in the three-line telegram: would Sam Goudsmit consider a temporary appointment in the spring? The number of teaching hours is limited. Kemble wrote that Sam Goudsmit could choose the subject himself, and at $6,000 a year emolument was not bad at all. Sam Goudsmit reacted positively and accepted the offer with a few conditions.

In recent years, the research in physics had shifted to the area of nuclear physics. Van Calmthout argues that there was a good reason for that. In 1939, the team of the German physicist Otto Hahn (with Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner) had demonstrated in experiments in Berlin that the nucleus in an atom of uranium can be split with neutrons — a discovery that led to a lot of activity in the scientific world. Theorists and experiments wanted to know everything about the new phenomenon. Furthermore, physicists around the world had realized the significance of the fact that the fusion liberates further neutrons. It means that a chain reaction of nuclear fissions can be generated, even leading to an extremely violent explosion. The word “atom bomb” began to be part of the buzz in the United States and Europe.

One of the names on Sam Goudsmit’s Alsos list was that of a well-known German nuclear physicist — Walter Bothe. Van Calmthout says that Bothe had a lab in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for medical research. From Sam, the Americans knew that, among other instruments, Bothe had a cyclotron, with which fundamental nuclear research can be carried out. Alsos spent the fall of 1944 investigating in France and the liberated parts of Belgium and the Netherlands. Not until twenty-four hours after Pash’s specialists had taken over the laboratory did an American military unit show up with the assignment to secure the university lab. Sam Goudsmit took Bothe into custody.

The breakthrough at Strasbourg in November 1944 made it clear to Sam Goudsmit that German scientists were not anywhere near the development of a nuclear weapon and that they had never really thought about it. He made an extensive report to General Groves and his staff in Washington, but he got orders different from those he expected. Van Calmthout says that the Americans were impressed by Sam Goudsmit’s findings and the speed with which they had been made. But he had to keep looking. Sam Goudsmit could not understand the suspicions of the military men very well, but he acquiesced in his assignment. The war on the continent was in full swing. Bothe and his team had done a remarkable amount of work during the war years, but a first impression indicated that almost all of it was pure research in physics. Interrogations reveal no link with war-related efforts. Bothe was finally released.

After the German capitulation on May 8, 1945, Bothe wrote a report about his own nuclear work during the war years. Van Calmthout argues that Bothe had unintentionally hampered the German nuclear program in a major way. In 1941, he made a series of calculations that indicated that only a special, heavier form of hydrogen, deuterium, is suitable for the tempering of an enduring nuclear reaction. For some reason or other, he overlooked that the element carbon is physically much better suited for the process and, besides, is easily available in the form of graphite or ordinary coal. Later, Sam Goudsmit discovered another lab located in a wing of a local school where they also found uranium left behind the Germans. Van Calmthout says that this lab was still relatively intact but pitifully small. Pash and Sam Goudsmit soon realized for the first time that the Germans definitely did attach a lot of value to research into nuclear fission and wanted to make every effort to build a bomb. It had the full attention of Nazi authorities. They must have expected a lot from it. But, they did not have enough time.

Sam Goudsmit and the Hunt for Hitler’s Atom Bomb is a fascinating biography of physicist Sam Goudsmit who was on a mission to discover Nazis’ plan to develop atomic bombs. He found the small nuclear lab that was trying to develop a bomb although it was in the very early stage. Sam Goudsmit has done a great job of bringing to the public realm what was known to a small group of scientists and government officials until now. Both experts and laypeople will find this carefully researched and brilliantly written book very interesting. If you thought the life of a scientist is boring, this book will change your opinion.

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