Archive for June, 2008

How Germany never managed to build the bomb

Sunday, June 29th, 2008

Jun 29, 2008

It was a coincidence and an educative one. As the political fires raged around the India-US nuclear deal, I happened to catch a film called Copenhagen on TV, about a meeting in 1941 between two of the greatest physicists of the 20th century: the Danish Niels Bohr, father of quantum theory, and his protégé, the German Werner Heisenberg, who discovered the Uncertainty Principle, backbone of quantum mechanics. No one knows for sure what the two men spoke about during their post-dinner walk, yet the conversation possibly changed history. All that is known is that they parted angrily. Heisenberg, the original wunderkind (Nobel laureate at the age of 31), went back to Berlin, where he was heading the German nuclear bomb mission, and soon after the meeting, Bohr fled Denmark to join the Manhattan Project, which would create the world’s first nuclear bomb.

I must here clarify that this column has no relevance to the current nuclear deal impasse. I am for India-US nuclear cooperation, but the lives of Bohr and Heisenberg have nothing to do with it.

Copenhagen postulates that during that fateful walk, Heisenberg asked Bohr to join the German effort, which Bohr curtly refused. Heisenberg then tried to explain to Bohr — indirectly — that he had no intention of making the bomb, because he had made a moral decision that the bomb would be Evil. But Bohr misunderstood, and abused the German race, which Heisenberg would not stand. He was a profoundly patriotic German. The two never clarified what actually happened, but this is a plausible explanation. Germany never managed to build the bomb, even though the effort was led by Heisenberg and Otto Hahn, the man who discovered nuclear fission, which is what the bomb is about.

My dear friend Ravi Vyas, who mentioned Copenhagen to me years ago, has been kind enough to send me an article from the New York Review of Books on the “Farm Hall transcripts”. After Germany fell, all top German nuclear scientists were interned for about six months in a country estate called Farm Hall near Cambridge. They were treated graciously, and they never knew that all their conversations were being recorded. The transcripts are now in the public domain. How the Germans reacted to the news of the Hiroshima bombing is fascinating.

The British officer in charge of Farm Hall writes: “Their first reaction… was an expression of horror that we (the Allied forces) should have used this invention for destruction.” Hahn “felt personally responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, as it was his original discovery which made the bomb possible. He told me that he had contemplated suicide when he realised the terrible potentialities of the discovery… With the help of considerable alcoholic stimulant, he was calmed down, and we went down to dinner.”

What soon becomes clear from the conversation of the Germans is that Heisenberg and Hahn had focused the German project on developing a nuclear reactor and not a bomb. They were far ahead of the Americans in this. The reactor produces energy, and the bomb kills people. One scientist, von Weizsacker, says: “I believe the reason we didn’t do it (build the bomb) was because all the scientists didn’t want to do it on principle.” Says Heisenberg: “At the bottom of my heart I was really glad that it was to be an engine (reactor) and not a bomb.” Hahn: “I thank God on my bended knees that we did not make a uranium bomb.”

Later, Hahn and Heisenberg were alone in the room. The British eavesdroppers write: “Hahn replied that he… loved his country and that… it was for this reason that he had hoped for her defeat… Heisenberg stated that had they been in the same moral position as the Americans and said to themselves that nothing mattered except that Hitler should win the war, they might have succeeded, whereas they did not want him to win.” Next morning, Weizsacker says: “The peaceful development (of the reactor) was made in Germany… whereas the Americans and English developed this ghastly weapon of war.”

Treason or patriotism? These men put their lives on the line to make sure that Hitler never got the bomb, yet Germany gained from nuclear power. For nearly a decade, they stonewalled their masters, and focused on doing what they thought was right. And they never ever spoke about it publicly in their lifetimes (Heisenberg died in 1976). These men were heroes.

On November 16, 1945, while they were still “guests” at the Farm Hall, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of nuclear fission.

The Beatles go Across The Universe

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

If you are below the age of 40, you should perhaps skip this column. Or, on second thoughts, maybe you should read the first one-and-a-half paragraphs. For, you would most likely have grown up with U2 or Oasis or Coldplay. The Beatles would be just some historical entity, like Crosby Stills & Nash. So let me sell some Beatles music to you.

Across The Universe (2007) is a quirky, touching and visually stunning movie built around 33 Beatles songs. Watch this movie, get acquainted with the Beatles, and I don’t care if you find the movie’s versions of the songs much better than the originals (They couldn’t have got better without their, well, strong foundations). The rest of this column is for people above 40, who are Beatles fans, so you can safely drop out now.

In Across, the story hardly matters (let’s just say it’s a love story set against the backdrop of the Vietnam war and the anti-war protests, with most of the cast named after characters in Beatles songs, like Jude, Lucy and Sadie (who is of course a very sexy lady, since she’s taken from the song Sexy Sadie), but what is dazzling is the way it is told, how the songs have been interpreted, and how elements in the lyrics have been given new meaning. For example, in the hands of director Julie Taymor, the simple, happy I Want To Hold Your Hand becomes a heartrending and beautiful lament of forbidden love. You have to hear it to believe that I Want To had this hidden inside it.

Strawberry Fields Forever, known to fans as one of those John Lennon-on-acid-doing-free-association or something like that, begins, in the film, as an expression of a lover’s jealousy, then metamorphoses amazingly into a condemnation of war (strawberry juice is red, just as blood is). In every case, either the situation or the visuals confront you with a completely new meaning of the songs. Come Together is used to showcase the energy of New York nightlife. While My Guitar Gently Weeps starts as an elegy to Dr Martin Luther King, continues as a brooding over lost love, and ends on a note of hope. The use of Let It Be, probably one of the Beatles’ greatest and most moving songs, is, quite simply, staggering. The black-soul rendition plays over a sequence of the Detroit race riots and the funerals of a young black boy killed in the riots, and a white soldier who died in Vietnam. It begins with the boy singing while there’s war out on the streets, is continued by a black church choir while the boy is being buried, and then the boy takes over again at the soldier’s funeral. And in musical terms, it is definitely the most powerful cover version of Let It Be ever done.

The late French intellectual (I understand that in France, being an intellectual is a profession, like carpenter or deep-sea diver) Roland Barthes posited the theory that the meaning of any text is created by the reader, not the author. OK, here’s some Wikipedia explanation of this: “Since there can be no originating anchor of meaning in the possible intentions of the author, Barthes concludes that meaning must be actively created by the reader through a process of textual analysis. Barthes concludes that an ideal text is one that is reversible, or open to the greatest variety of independent interpretations and not restrictive in meaning.” My reaction to this has always been that if this is true, Barthes should not have accepted any royalties on the sale of his books. But after watching Across, I am beginning to wonder whether the bugger was on to something there.

Obviously, Lennon and McCartney did not write I Want To Hold Your Hand as anything other than just another love song. Look, they were in their early 20s, had not been out of Liverpool too many times, had not taken drugs, or discovered Mahesh Yogi. But it’s astonishing how you can use context to make people see something familiar to them in a totally different way. It just requires imagination, and you have a new way of seeing. In a way that the author never thought of. And maybe quality of art really does lie in possible ambiguity. All jokes are about humiliation or come-uppance. Tragedy or comedy? Once a piece of work reaches the public domain, it is completely out of the control of the creator. Scary. Wonder what you made of this column.