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The Bohr - Heisenberg Conversation
A Little Perspective
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The conversation that took place in Copenhagen between the eminent Niels
Bohr and his one-time student, Werner Heisenberg, has been the subject of
much controversy and formed the basis for the popular Broadway play
"Copenhagen". What, precisely, motivated Heisenberg to make the trip
to Copenhagen? Was he attempting to communicate to Bohr that many of
the German physicists did not share Hitler's views and would work
"silently" to stonewall any development of an atomic explosive, OR, was he
attempting to ease Bohr's concerns and downplay Germany's active pursuit
of atomic energy, OR, as some assert, was he attempting to recruit Bohr to
the Nazi cause. At one time, Heisenberg was Bohr's star pupil but
Bohr became suspicious of Heisenberg when he heard that he had defended
Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland. Thus to many, the meeting between
the two must have been awkward to say the least.
The author Robert Jungk, in his book "Brighter Than a Thousand Suns" writes that Heisenberg, as well as many other German scientists, were caught between a rock and a hard place; that the fears of a German defeat were almost as bad a German victory. The true feelings of the German scientists are difficult to ascertain and only the surreptitious recordings of their conversations at Farm Hall (see below) shed any light, although unfavorable.
Unfortunately no formal record of the meeting exists and the situation lay dormant for many years until a letter written by Werner Heisenberg to the author Robert Jungk in late 1957 illustrated Heisenberg's recollection of the conversation. This "recollection" did not mesh with those of Bohr. Subsequently Bohr, after writing several drafts, sent a letter to Heisenberg giving a different interpretation to the meeting. Bohr's communications to Heisenberg have been unavailable until they were recently (2/6/02) made available by the Bohr Family.
I won't attempt to shed any additional light on the controversy since the documents presented here speak for themselves.
To add a "little more fuel to the fire", I have included information concerning the Farm Hall Secret Transcripts. In late 1944 and early 1945, ten German physicists were captured by the advancing Allies. After being interrogated by the Alsos group of the Manhattan Project, they were interned at Farm Hall, a country estate in England. Here they spent the remainder of the war under comparative luxury - except that every word they said was recorded and later analyzed. These secret recordings have been the subject of several books and paint a disturbing picture of the German scientific community during the war. They refute much of Heisenberg's later recollections.