Michael’s Musings- Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler
Can science ever be apolitical? That is the question at the heart of Philip Ball’s thought provoking book charting the response of German physicists to the rise of Nazism. Despite having studied this period of history at A-level (a number of years ago), I wasn’t aware of the role played by the physics community beyond my limited knowledge of the atomic programme and Michael Frayn’s fictional account of the meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. However, now having read Serving the Reich: The Struggle for the Soul of Physics under Hitler, an incredibly accessible and engaging account, I am fascinated by this period and the ethical questions it raises.
As the basis of his narrative, Ball selects three main protagonists: Max Planck, the pioneer of quantum theory; Peter Debye, a Dutch national who rose through the ranks of German physics to become the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics in Berlin; and Werner Heisenberg, probably best known for his Uncertainty Principle. Intertwining their stories with those of several other scientists, the reader is taken on a journey encompassing the varied responses of German physicists; from the internationalism of Einstein to the Deutsche Physik of Lenard and Stark.
In the final analysis, Debye, Heisenberg and Planck, like the majority of their peers, believed that their work was above politics, allowing them a degree of separation from the atrocities that took place. Both Planck and Heisenberg believed that resignation in response to the extremes of a totalitarian regime would have been an ‘abdication of one’s responsibility as a German and a scientist’. Planck thought it was a scientist’s responsibility to carry on as normal, partly because of his conservative education and sense of duty towards the German state and culture. Heisenberg by comparison became a leading figure in German attempts to create an atomic bomb, seeking official approval, while claiming after the war that physicists had ultimately slowed the project’s progress. Perhaps the most interesting of the three though is Debye, regarded by many as a ‘scientist’s scientist’, devoted to his research and the most apolitical of the three.
By combining biography, history and physics expertly (as someone who struggles to understand quantum physics, I never felt out of my depth) Ball has painted an incredibly detailed world. The breadth and depth of his research are obvious and I found myself drawn in by these characters with all their contradictions, flaws and weaknesses. With his even handed approach, Ball doesn’t judge these men as harshly as perhaps others might, but leaves readers questioning their own sense of morality and how we would have responded in a similar situation.
I have found myself reflecting on the themes of this book ever since I finished reading it. As such, I can think of no higher praise.