TCS Daily

The Heisenberg Principle

By Jay Bryant - October 30, 2003 12:00 AM

At the dawn of World War II, the greatest physicist in the world was -- at least arguably -- Leipzig University professor Werner Heisenberg, who was known by many of the other great physicists of the time to have been thinking about the theoretical possibility of an atomic bomb.


Indeed, the fact that Heisenberg, unlike many other German physicists, had remained in the fatherland during the Nazi era was one of the prime motivators for the creation of the Manhattan Project. The reason the United States put on a crash program to develop an atomic bomb was the fear that Heisenberg was ahead of them, and that such a device might be available to Hitler at any time.


So worried about Heisenberg was the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA, that in December 1944, it put together an astonishingly bold plan that included the possibility of Heisenberg's assassination.


Learning that Heisenberg was going to give a speech in neutral Switzerland, the OSS sent Moe Berg to Zurich with instructions to listen to the speech and if he heard anything that suggested Heisenberg was close to creating an atomic bomb, to shoot him, right there in the lecture hall.


Berg was one of the most fascinating spies in history, a Princeton graduate and backup big-league baseball catcher in real life, depending on which of his lives you choose to consider the real one. In the event, he decided Heisenberg was not close to building a bomb and spared his life.


The Way of Secrecy


After the war, Heisenberg allowed others to believe and write that the reason the Nazi regime failed to develop an atomic bomb was because he, Heisenberg, deliberately sabotaged the effort. Today, 27 years after his death, some believe it, some don't.


It's that way with the secrets of war. As Heisenberg's biographer, Thomas Powers, put it in discussing the assassination plot: "secrecy was tight, no one knew what the Germans were doing, all believed a German atomic bomb might save Hitler even on the last day of the war." [Italics in the original.]


And if Moe Berg had called fastball instead of curve, Heisenberg, innocent (or not) would have been murdered. That was then.


This is now: we live in such contentious times in our domestic politics that we can no longer accept that sometimes, secrecy is tight and no one knows what an enemy country is doing. We demand investigations, call for heads to roll -- the CIA director at least, the President if at all possible. Newspaper columns are written; Senators dispatched to Sunday morning television shows. A great crisis is manufactured out of the demand that intelligence be perfect. If any one report, among many, can be shown to have recommended something contrary to what the administration believed, proclaimed or acted on, then the administration is charged with deceiving the public. It knew the truth, and here's the memo to prove it.


But it didn't know the truth. No administration can ever know the truth about what is going on inside another government, particularly when "secrecy is tight."


So With Iraq


One of the plausible explanations about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction program, including his nuclear program, is that his scientists, Heisenberg-like, were deceiving him about how well it was all going. Understandably afraid to bear bad news to the murderous dictator, they told him what he wanted to hear.


Maybe it was like that; maybe not. If Powers, after all his research, cannot be one hundred per cent sure about Heisenberg, then it is a cinch we will never know for certain what was going on inside the Ba'ath bureaucracy in Baghdad.


That being the case, surely it is more civilized, in a post-war period, to behave like adults. After World War II, we were: a) glad we had won; b) grateful to those, large and small, who had helped; and c) prepared to bear enormous expense to rebuild the savage nations we had recently fought. As a result, we can read stories like the Heisenberg-Berg encounter as a dramatic episode, filled with the moral ambiguity of life itself. We don't demand an investigation of how one man could have been given a license to kill another based on his impression of a speech on one of the most arcane subjects imaginable in a foreign language. Neither do we demand to know how so much effort could have been expended on the Manhattan Project, the basis of which was an untruth: that Hitler was close to developing an atomic bomb.


No such weapon of mass destruction was found in postwar Germany. Nonetheless, it might have been, for all anyone knew before or during the war.


Today, Heisenberg is best remembered for his contribution to quantum physics known as the "uncertainty principle," a principle that applies to life and war as surely as it does to sub-atomic particles. The most certain thing about the end of both World War II and the Iraqi War is that an evil and sadistic dictator fell from power. That was and is very good news indeed, which no amount of carping and whining about the details can change.


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