IN the book Oppenheimer — American Prometheus, it was reported that “On Sunday, January 29, 1939, Luis Walter Alvarez (a promising young physicist and later 1968 Nobel laureate in Physics) while sitting in a barber’s chair reading the San Francisco Chronicle suddenly heard on the radio that two German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had successfully demonstrated that the uranium nucleus could be split into two or more parts with neutrons.”
The discovery stunned the world and later proved to be far-reaching in subsequent geopolitical developments.
Alvarez was impatient with the slow-moving barber and he stopped him in mid-snip.
He rushed back to his laboratory to spread the word. He bumped into Robert Oppenheimer and told him the news.
Oppenheimer with his forte for rough and ready calculations concluded that someone must have made a mistake. It was not a mistake.
The German duo had unwittingly let the genie out of the lamp. The world will never be the same again.
Germany had a head start in nuclear fission works. It brought with it German empowerment.
If ever there was a country that should come up with the world’s first atomic bomb it should be Germany. But somehow it was not to be.
In his book Science Goes to War, Ernest Volkman came out with plausible reasons why Germany failed in its bomb-building venture.
According to him, “Werner Heisenberg (1932 Nobel laureate in Physics and Head of the German Bomb Project) had made a number of scientific errors.
“He did not understand the basic physics of a bomb, never could come up with a bomb’s design, vastly underestimated how much U-235 was needed to achieve critical mass in the nuclear chain reaction, and did not understand that the Germans first would have to build a workable nuclear reactor before proceeding to construct a bomb.
“Above all, he failed to grasp that the bomb was as much an engineering problem as a scientific one.
“In the strict hierarchy of German science, no engineer would dare tell a scientist that a given concept was technologically wrong.
“Heisenberg, who was not an engineer, often had problems dealing with simple technical matters and was not about to listen to an engineer; in German science, a physicist of Heisenberg’s reputation did not lower himself to listen to engineers.”
In short, the failure of a German bomb was not only due to technical or technological incompetence.
Cultural and communication problems also bedevilled the project.
Had Heisenberg succeeded, it would have added a new feather to his cap and World War 2 might have had a different outcome.
Ironically, the man who was initially sceptical of the discovery of nuclear fission succeeded in what Heisenberg had failed to do.
Oppenheimer knew how to rally top physicists, engineers, technicians and army personnel, working side by side with him.
They had less impediments and enjoyed the process of building the bombs.
That made the difference.
Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.