Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alternative History

I recently read A Palette of Particles, another fine book by the writer and physicist Jeremy Bernstein about the history of particle physics up to the Higgs boson. Bernstein mentions one chilling near miss in physics. In Rome in 1934 an Italian team led by Enrico Fermi actually observed nuclear fission. But they misinterpreted what they saw. Bernstein asks us to imagine how world history might have been different if fission was discovered in Fascist Italy in 1934 instead of four years later in Berlin 1938. Even though fission was discovered in Germany, by that time, the fascist powers were rapidly becoming very isolated from the rest of the scientific community. Lack of scientific knowledge might have been only part of the reason the Nazis weren't able to build a bomb, but it was probably a factor. After WWII several distinguished German scientists were held together by the Allies in England (Operation Epsilon) and their conversations were secretly recorded. Several of them, including Heisenberg, seemed surprised when they learned of the atomic bomb and may have mistakenly believed that an explosion would require tons of uranium, not kilograms.

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