This is a little painful to read, because it repeats some long-debunked myths about the Nazis atomic program: They didn't fail to make a bomb because of a lack of heavy water, or by being bad at industrial production. ... nytimes.com/2021/09/10/sci…
...they failed because **they didn't invest in an atomic bomb production program.** In early 1942, German Army Ordnance decided that nuclear fission research would be irrelevant to the outcome of the war, and declined to finance a large-scale effort.
Instead, they agreed to keep a small-scale (I would say "pilot") reactor program, as a possible long-term program aimed primarily around military propulsion. This is what the cubes were part of — a small-scale reactor program. The Nazi reactors couldn't have made bombs for WWII.
This isn't news*, though it has STILL not really penetrated popular conceptions, which are STILL rooted in the propagandistic "race for the atomic bomb."

*See, e.g., Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power (Cambridge, 1989), esp. chapter 2.
Even if Heisenberg et al. had gotten their reactor working safely, those reactors were too low-powered to be useful for weapons purposes (the more fuel and neutrons in a reactor, the more Pu you produce). You need MUCH larger reactors to produce plutonium on a useful time-scale.
Each reactor at Hanford during WWII (which took years to build) could produce 225 *grams* of Pu-239 per 1 *ton* of U metal. They could process 30 tons of metal per month, and there were three reactors. ~20 kg/mo. = 3 bomb cores (6kg/ea.).
Compare the size of the B reactor above (just one of the three reactors built) to the Nazi reactor at Haigerloch... that's the difference between a production program and a pilot program, in a nutshell.
The German atomic program in general was several orders of magnitude smaller than the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project spent more *per day* at its peak than the German program did over its entire time, and 100X more people involved in it. It wasn't a close call!
Separately, while I don't get annoyed when Operation Paperclip is invoked in this context, it might be worth noting that the US *explicitly* did not take German *nuclear* scientists into its nuclear program. Because they didn't know anything of value from the US perspective.
The only value of bringing German nuclear scientists to the US, the military concluded in 1947, was to deny the possibility of them helping the Soviet Union. They were *deliberately* excluded from any possibility of working on classified nuclear work in the US.
The really interesting things about the cube story, for me (having followed it for a few years now — I got to play with one of these cubes when I was a grad student at Harvard, btw), is missed by this article. They are:
1) It's an interesting historical curiosity to see how these cubes circulated in the postwar. It'd be nice to know for sure how many of them ended up in the US nuclear program, and how many were became just mementos, etc.
2) It would be interesting for scientists to do a technical post-mortem on the German reactors with modern tools. (This is what some of those studying the cubes have been doing.) How close were they really to success? Minor tweaks vs. major changes? Etc.
3) It's interesting to see what kind of historical information can be derived from these things in retrospect in general. E.g., I was very impressed with this paper that could derive detailed weapons info from Trinitite decades later: pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.102…
None of the above challenges the overall conclusions about the German nuclear program and the lack of a "race for the atomic bomb." (Or, in the end, the fact that the Norsk Hydro raid didn't really change the war's outcome at all, however heroic and well-motivated it was.)
I also am not really sure how you could blame the Cold War on the German nuclear program. That's... a stretch. There are a lot of factors in the origins of the Cold War. Nazi uranium is not a very big one in my mind.
(Obviously the US nuclear program played a big role in the origins of the Cold War. And US *fears of* a German nuclear program led to that. But that's several steps removed from the *actual* German nuclear program, which was much more modest than the US fears.)
Separately, I think it IS interesting to ask the counter-factual: what if the Germans HAD decided on a full-scale atomic bomb program in 1942 — could they have done it? I have my doubts — too much aerial bombardment and targeted sabotage, mainly.
Anyway, it's always disappointing when you get a story like this on nuclear history and it feels so half-baked. The @arstechnica story on the same topic by @JenLucPiquant is much better: arstechnica.com/science/2021/0…
Personally, I would encourage every journalist who works on a story about the German program to ask about the relative size/effort disparity between the German and American programs. Because that's where one sees very immediately how minor the German program was.
The Manhattan Project, of course, is not the "barometer" to compare all other nuclear programs to, but it gives a good indication of what is necessary to invent this kind of stuff from scratch under time pressure (3 years).
Oh, and I should probably say: I don't necessarily blame the historians interviewed for this. Who knows what they did or didn't say in context. Journalists sometimes pick odd quotes from a longer interview to advance the story they (or their editors) want.

• • •

Missing some Tweet in this thread? You can try to force a refresh
 

Keep Current with Alex Wellerstein

Alex Wellerstein Profile picture

Stay in touch and get notified when new unrolls are available from this author!

Read all threads

This Thread may be Removed Anytime!

PDF

Twitter may remove this content at anytime! Save it as PDF for later use!

Try unrolling a thread yourself!

how to unroll video
  1. Follow @ThreadReaderApp to mention us!

  2. From a Twitter thread mention us with a keyword "unroll"
@threadreaderapp unroll

Practice here first or read more on our help page!

More from @wellerstein

15 Sep
@NarangVipin @SecDef19 I'm not sure that's what he's saying. The procedures do involve the CJCS, that is clear. It is also implied in much testimony that they can go "around" the CJCS in some situations. This is entirely separate from whether CJCS has a true veto power, beyond disobeying an order.
@NarangVipin @SecDef19 The "standard" chain of command jumps from POTUS to CJCS and from there to the theatre commanders. It is clear that there is meant to be some flexibility to this as well. I read Miley as saying, "don't be flexible, and make sure it goes through CJCS himself, not a subordinate."
@NarangVipin @SecDef19 Here's the cute lil' diagram I made of the US system as described in doctrine and testimony. Person #2 is CJCS or head of STRATCOM (there seems to be flexibility there).

Whole paper is here, diagrams for diff countries (and legend) are at end: nautilus.org/napsnet/napsne…
Read 5 tweets
11 Sep
For 9/11/01 I was I living in a studio apartment on top of a hill in Berkeley with nobody I knew around, no radio, no television. So I got all my news through a terrible dial-up connection. 1/
I remember logging on that morning, after everything had happened, and trying to make sense of the news. It seemed totally non-sequitur. I think my internet was being especially slow that day as well, so pages were only half-loading. It was so surreal. 2/
We still had classes that day, which is I guess surprising in retrospect. People were super worried about there being West Coast targets as well. The bomb squad had parked itself at the front of campus. In class we sort of just talked about it all. 3/
Read 9 tweets
10 Sep
The difficulty for doing Oppenheimer well is that Oppenheimer, the man, was not a relatable character in practically any way. Trying to make him so makes for a bad filmic Oppenheimer. But anchoring a film around an unrelatable character is pretty tough.
I still really like how Daniel London portrayed Oppenheimer on MANHATTAN — as stressed, self-doubting, at times extremely harsh and cold. That wasn't 100% of the real Oppenheimer, but it's a legitimate side of him that is usually NOT visible in dramatic representations.
For me, the two Oppenheimer plot lines that I hate the most (because they are maximum mythical) is "Oppenheimer as martyr" (way more complex than that) and "Oppenheimer as regretful" (he really wasn't).
Read 4 tweets
10 Aug
August 10th, 1945 — another very important day in the history of nuclear weapons. Groves informs Marshall (and Truman) that another bomb will be ready to use in a week. Truman tells Marshall that they are NOT to use it without his express permission. Image
This, and not the "decision to use the bomb" (which Truman played almost no role in), is what establishes the tradition and eventually the policy of "presidential control" for nuclear use orders in the United States (it was still de facto before 1948, when NSC-30 codified it). Image
Truman told his cabinet — as recorded in the diary of Henry Wallace, his secretary of commerce, that he had issued the "stop order" because "he didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, 'all those kids.'" Image
Read 6 tweets
8 Aug
August 8, 1945, has become one of the more important atomic bombing dates in my mind over the years. It's after Hiroshima, but before Nagasaki. It's easy to ignore for that reason. But a few very significant things happened that day.

(A fairly shortish thread)
16 hours after Hiroshima was bombed, the US released Truman's statement about what had happened. The Japanese, of course, did not take it at face value, and sent a delegation of scientists to Hiroshima to confirm that it wasn't just firebombing or something else.
Because of the disruption, it took until the evening of August 8th for them to get to Hiroshima, inspect the damage, do some tests, and to report back to the Japanese high command:
Read 10 tweets
8 Aug
In a dream I had last night, I was talking to someone about pitching a Shout and Murmurs about "buying your dream house," except "dream house" here meant the weird houses that appear in your dreams — those weird mashups of real and imaginary dwellings, with secret rooms, etc.
Separately, I've been thinking a lot about dream architecture lately — my brain clearly has "dream versions" of certain places that I dream about more than once, and they clearly represent real-life places, but are really different than the real ones.
I find them so odd because they have almost a "theme" of the original place (e.g., college, a house I lived in during grad school, a library I used to go to) but they end up being totally different (almost impossibly larger and grander, for example).
Read 4 tweets

Did Thread Reader help you today?

Support us! We are indie developers!


This site is made by just two indie developers on a laptop doing marketing, support and development! Read more about the story.

Become a Premium Member ($3/month or $30/year) and get exclusive features!

Become Premium

Too expensive? Make a small donation by buying us coffee ($5) or help with server cost ($10)

Donate via Paypal Become our Patreon

Thank you for your support!

Follow Us on Twitter!

:(