Lecture 29

From nuclear science to the nuclear bomb.

There are entries relevant to this chapter in the blog for these lecture notes


As we enter the 20th century the range of scientific studies becomes broader than ever before, and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of innovation and new thought. If we want to navigate through the developments of the last century without getting side-tracked we have to remind ourselves of the basic premise that accompanied us through the millennia of scientific development.

In our discussion of the origin of numbers in Lecture 3 we said that "Every society develops the tools needed for its everyday activities." In Lecture 5 we narrowed that statement down by stating that "People only develop what they need for their daily lives." When we arrived at the revival of European science before the Enlightenment (Lecture 19) we became even more specific by saying that "Science develops [only] when there is a need for it."

It is important to realize the difference between motivation and need. The motivation of the individual scientist derives from personal considerations that include intellectual satisfaction, social status, financial security and others, aspects to which we shall return in Lecture 35. The need for science as an activity of society is determined by its economy. In a fully developed capitalist economy the need for science is profit maximization. In the 19th century this led to the rise of industrial research as a new form of scientific activity.

"Pure" and "applied" research

From the very beginning of civilization the aim of scientific research has been the search for solutions to practical problems. It was also realized very early that the most effective way to find these solutions was to allow scientists to look into all aspects of the problem, including those that may appear only remotely connected to it. The distinction between "pure" and "applied" research was not made until the 19th century, when the drive for profit maximization began to impact strongly on scientific research.

Scientists reacted differently to this development. Some, like William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), embraced the opportunity for wealth from involvement in industrial enterprise, others, like Gauß and Maxwell, preferred to stay away from it while nevertheless working on the solution of problems that were relevant for the time.

The term "pure" science suggests that any connection with industrial applications is impure. Some scientists prefer the term "basic" science. The distinction is artificial; as a social activity capitalist science in all its aspects is determined by profit maximization. If there is any distinction at all it is between science in industrial research laboratories and research in universities and public research institutions, and it is doubtful whether this distinction is anything more than a description of an administrative structure.

Before the beginning of the 20th century industrial research was concentrated in the electrical, iron and steel, fertilizer, sugar, drugs, dyes and petroleum industries. From about 1875 industrial research laboratories arose in quick succession in the USA and all major European countries. The large industrial research laboratories emulated the academic work environment of universities to some degree, and some produced a significant number of research papers that were of more or less fundamental nature. The General Electric laboratories, for example, "engendered an atmosphere that was found congenial by PhD scientists: weekly colloquia, publication of scientific papers, and encouragement to acquire a greater fundamental understanding of technological phenomena." (Bowker, 1995)

But the companies that invested in research also introduced a new element into science: private ownership of scientific discoveries and innovations. Before industrial research one cornerstone of all science had been the principle that the fruits of scientific work could be harvested by everyone. Industrial science inevitably leads to patents, which deny the public access to research results. More than one industry monopoly (for example the Bell Telephone Company) was built on the exploitation of patent legislation. Large companies employed scientists specifically for the task to scan the open scientific literature for innovative ideas that the companies could turn into patents of their own.

The restrictions on free exchange of scientific findings introduced by private industry gave governments the role of supporting "pure" or "basic" research. In addition to strengthening its universities, all major countries established public research institutions. Germany pioneered a new structure in 1911 with the establishment of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society for the Promotion of Science (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft, later renamed Max-Planck-Gesellschaft). Rather than searching for scientists as employees for its research institutions, the Society looked for eminent scientists and offered them to build an entire research laboratory in accordance with their wishes.

While the conditions for research unimpeded by patents and ownership of results were better in public institutions, there was always a close connection between industry and public research. Today universities, too, take out patents on the work of their employees, and financial support from industry is commonplace. Governments promote and justify this by the national need to compete against other countries in a global market.

Nationalism has always been a convenient way of getting people to support the interests of the ruling class. In Europe it reached its peak during the build-up to World War I, a period that shattered the idea of the independence of public research institutions from imperialist interests. The most drastic example was the Institute for Physical and Electrochemistry of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. When the war started its director Fritz Haber placed it at the disposal of the government's war programme and personally initiated the development of gas warfare. In 1918 he received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his methods to synthesize ammonia. Being of Jewish ancestry he was not rewarded for his nationalistic feelings; he had to emigrate in 1933.

From nationalism to imperialism and socialist revolution

The creation of the German Reich in 1871 had completed the unification of Germany, but it had not solved the central problem of German capitalism: Germany lacked colonies. The years 1875 - 1900 were marked by the race for colonies in Africa between Britain and France with Germany a distant third. Germany was determined to become an imperial power as well and wanted a redistribution of colonial possessions, if necessary by force. It began a massive naval expansion programme aimed at world wide operation. By 1913/14 the German military budget surpassed that of all other countries. (Bartel et al., 1967) Germany's intentions did not go unnoticed. Britain in particular took steps to match Germany's naval expansion, and military confrontation became more and more likely by the day.

The immediate trigger for the confrontation of the imperialist states was the assassination in June 1914 of the heir to the throne of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, Archduke Ferdinand, in Sarajewo, capital of the province of Bosnia-Herzegowina. The assassin was a member of the Bosnian Serb community, which resented Austrian rule. Germany seized the opportunity, promising Austria support in a military confrontation with Serbia. The ensuing World War I was the culmination of years of preparation, a war of aggression in which all European imperial powers tried to gain the upper hand over their competitors. Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Turkish Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria fought as the "Central Powers" against the "Allied Powers" Britain, France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Russia and the USA.

World War I represented the transition from the "classical" wars to the wars of the 20th century. Before World War I military conflict produced casualties mainly amongst soldiers, while the civilian population suffered from malnutrition, a depressed economy and a loss of sons and husbands at the front but largely survived the ordeal. World War I was characterized by trench warfare, a situation of stalemate, produced by the technological development of artillery, that lasted for years and cost the lives of 9 million soldiers. Its casualty rate amongst the civilian population was also high; but the warring parties did not yet have an air force of great significance, and the deliberate killing of civilians was still limited. Science and technology would soon give industry the means to build faster and deadlier planes and change the face of war forever: From now on soldiers would survive at safe distance from the battlefield, while millions of civilians would die from carpet bombing of cities or be burnt alive from napalm.

The outbreak of the war was accompanied by nationalistic fever of an intensity never seen before. All parties, including those of the working class (Labour in Britain, the Social Democrats in Germany and their counterparts in all other countries), preached patriotism and implored their members and the public in general to fight and die for their countries' imperialist cause. The lone dissenting voice came from the Bolsheviki under the leadership of Lenin, who denounced the war as an unjust war of aggression on all sides. When the Central Powers were defeated in 1918 the war had not only changed the face of Germany but also the face of one of the Allied Powers: Russia had tried to join the imperialist club and harvested a revolution.

During the early 18th century Russia had made a determined but unsuccessful attempt to enter the world of modern capitalism under Peter the Great (Lecture 23). 150 years later it had fallen back into feudalism and an economy based on serfdom. The continued availability of free labour acted as a strong disincentive for the introduction of machinery, and before the abolition of serfdom in 1861 the pace of industrialization was slow Hoping to be able to catch up with the leading imperialists, the Russian Tsar had followed the example of the German Kaiser and embarked on a massive naval expansion programme. But Russia's fleet was destroyed in confrontations with Japan in 1904 and 1905. By joining World War I Russia had hoped to get at least part of the spoils. As the weakest of the Allied Powers it had suffered severe military setbacks. An attempt to mobilize additional recruits in 1916 had resulted in a general uprising and the demand for an immediate end to the war, and in February 1917 a bourgeois revolution had brought the end of the tsarist reign.

It soon turned out that the new bourgeois government followed the same imperialist interests that had brought Russia to war. Its decision to continue Russia's involvement in the war brought it in conflict with the general population. Workers' and soldiers' councils (Soviets) sprang up everywhere. The Bolsheviki demanded immediate peace negotiations. In November 1917 (October in the old Russian calendar) a second revolution, known as the October Revolution, deposed the bourgeois government and established the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Peace negotiations began the following month; a peace treaty was signed three months later.

The German Kaiser dynasty was the second major casualty of the war. Spurned on by the October Revolution the German workers started nationwide strike action even before the war ended. In 1919 mass demonstrations and a popular uprising resulted in the establishment of the Weimar Republic.

From World War I to World War II

World War I had changed the faces of Russia and Germany, but the situation in both countries was by no means stable. Should Germany give up its imperialist aspirations and turn to socialism, or should it try the imperialist road again? For a brief period after the war this question was not decided either way. Workers' Councils sprang up around the country, and several cities established local popular republican governments. Industrialists watched the developments with horror. The Social Democrats, who had already supported the imperialist war, took it upon themselves to rescue the situation once again. Their military corps crushed the peoples' republics; the Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg (1870/1871 - 1919) and Karl Liebknecht (1871 - 1919) were murdered. In the end fascism won out; in 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power and the German republic collapsed.

Fascism was not a specifically German phenomenon. It was the answer of the ruling class to otherwise unsurmountable adversity. Fascism was brought to power in Portugal and Spain, countries of old colonial and imperial traditions that had sunken into insignificance, and Italy and Germany, the two latecomers to the imperial race. (Lecture 28) The Spanish Civil War turned into an international confrontation between socialism and fascism and a testing ground for Hitler's air force.

Germany, the economically strongest of the fascist countries, was determined to join the imperialist club and developed the most extreme form of fascism for that purpose. From his rise to power in 1933 Hitler prepared for war. Industrialists had supported him as early as 1929 and welcomed his government. The general population was won through the exploitation of two circumstances: The banks had made good profits during a massive world-wide recession that had produced mass unemployment; and many commercial firms, which were seen as exploiting the impoverished population, were owned by members of the German Jewish community. By combining agitation against bank capital with anti-semitism, Hitler managed to neutralize the political influence of communists and social democrats and gain a majority in parliamentary elections.

The developments in Germany were of particular concern to the Soviet Union. Hitler made no secret of his intentions to gain territory in the east, and the backward Russian economy would not be capable of holding back a military assault. Lenin's government, faced after World War I with hostility from the imperialist powers, had already begun the task of turning the USSR into a modern industrial country. Hitler's plans meant that it had to be achieved in the span of one generation. So the USSR mobilized science at a scale that eclipsed the role of science during the French Revolution. (Lecture 21) The Russian Academy of Sciences, which under the tsar was controlled by aristocratic members of the court, was reorganized into an organization with an elected president and grew at a rapid rate. Through a series of five-year plans the USSR was turned from an agriculture-based society into a modern industrialized country.

The transition from agricultural to industrial society could of course only be achieved through a massive people movement from the land into the factories. In England, which had started that process more than 300 years earlier, this had been achieved through the process of enclosures: Peasants had lost their land by force and turned into landless vagrants in search for work. (Lecture 20) The result had been nationwide extreme poverty and suffering. Stalin, who had succeeded Lenin in 1924, achieved the transition through forced collectivization, which turned all peasants into state employees. This made them available for work in factories as well but had disastrous consequences for agricultural production and resulted in widespread famine and millions of death from starvation. In the end the price Russia's peasants had to pay for the country's transition into industrial society was at least as high as the price England's peasants had paid for England's rise as the first capitalist country. But by the beginning of World War II Stalin had turned the USSR into a modern industrial state with an industrial output surpassed only by the USA.

Within a few years of rising to power Stalin turned into a ruthless dictator. He eliminated political opponents and forced ethnic minorities who he judged unreliable to resettle in remote locations, where many died. His policies have led people to judge his rule as equally evil as Hitler's reign of terror. This may be acceptable as a moral position. But historical assessment cannot be based on the morality of individuals; it has to evaluate their historical roles in the development of human society:

Stalin's terror will forever mark him as a brutal and oppressive dictator; it cannot negate his historical achievements.

When the war was over it was again Germany and the Soviet Union where the situation was by no means stable, but this time the threat did not come from a defeated Germany. The defeat of fascism meant that the capitalist countries could now concentrate on the socialist adversary. During the war England's prime minister Winston Churchill had grudgingly set aside his anticommunism and forged an anti-fascist alliance with Stalin, but now he began to promote a European alliance against the Soviet Union. The USA, too, had an interest in seeing the end of communism in Russia and promoted the idea of a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Having been defeated twice in exhausting wars, Germany had no capacity to actively participate in any plans against the Soviet Union. The German population was tired of war. Pacifism was the dominant feeling of the time, and there was a strong possibility that Germany would join Austria, Switzerland and others in taking a neutral stand in the coming confrontation. To secure Germany's membership in NATO the USA gave generous economic support to reconstruction, which led to Germany's rapid economic recovery.

This set the scene for Stalin's second historical achievement. By matching the development of the atomic bomb in the USA with an equivalent development in the USSR he established a situation of peace based on fear of nuclear confrontation. The "Cold War," as this period was called, was a time of intense ideological confrontation, but it eliminated war from Europe for nearly half a century.

The atomic bomb was a product of nuclear physics. Without science there would not be an atomic bomb. It is thus clear that science and society in the 20th and 21st centuries are more intricately linked than ever. The actions of society rely on the results of scientific research, and scientific research is inseparable from its social consequences.

Nuclear physics: power plants, or bombs?

The foundations of nuclear science were laid by the quantum physicists of the19th century and the work of Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr during the years before World War I. Its beginning can be identified with Wilhelm Röntgen's discovery of X-rays. This led Henri Becquerel to investigate possible connections between X-ray radiation and phosphorescence and to discover natural radioactivity in 1896 in the process. Within five years Marie Curie, working with her husband Pierre Curie, discovered and isolated uranium and showed that natural radioactivity occurs with a range of elements including uranium and thorium. The University of Paris built a dedicated Radium Institute, which Marie Curie - her husband had died in a traffic accident - developed into an international centre of medical radiography.

The nationalistic fever that gripped Europe during World War I afflicted most scientists as well. Among the few dissenting voices was that of Albert Einstein, who said of the wave of nationalism: "We are dealing with an epidemic delusion which, having caused infinite suffering, will one day vanish and become a monstrous and incomprehensible source of wonderment to later generations."

World War I was an imperialist war of aggression on all sides; involvement in it could not be justified by any argument. The situation changed with World War II. Although its aim was again a redistribution of imperialist possessions, the necessity to defeat fascism made involvement of the Allied Forces a just cause. For nuclear scientists it meant that they had to take sides: Would they support the German war effort, or would they join the anti-fascist alliance?

The question turned into an issue of immediate urgency because it had already become clear before the outbreak of the war that immense energy can be harvested from the atom. In 1934 Irène Joliot-Curie (the daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie) and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie discovered artificial radioactivity (the forced emission of radioactive rays through the bombardment of atoms with neutrons). Within years Enrico Fermi showed that artificial radioactivity can be turned into a self-sustaining process, in which the bombarding neutrons liberate sufficient neutrons from the atom to keep the process going. The loss of neutrons reduces the mass of the atom, which according to Einstein's relationship between mass and energy meant that such a "chain reaction" would liberate massive amounts of energy.

The consequences of this discovery were immediately understood by scientists in all countries, including Germany. The question whether Germany would be able to build a nuclear bomb before it could be defeated was in everyone's mind. Nuclear scientists in the USA, France and Germany became involved in a race to produce the most destructive device the world had seen.

In Germany Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner demonstrated the practical feasibility of nuclear fission. When they published their findings in 1939 Meitner, who came from a German Jewish family, had already been forced to leave Germany and was without a laboratory. (Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their joint work, but Meitner was ignored by the Nobel Prize Committee.) The German military immediately established its own research group for the construction of the bomb but did not force Hahn to join, and Hahn continued his research at the university.

In the USA president Franklin Roosevelt received a letter signed by Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. Faced with the threat of a German bomb Einstein had put aside his pacifism and urged Roosevelt to take action. Roosevelt sought and received Fermi's assistance in setting up the "Manhattan Project" for the development of the bomb. In February 1940 he authorized the expenditure of $6,000 to begin the research. At the hight of development the Manhattan Project employed 120,000 people, and by the time of the first test explosion in 1945 it had cost two billion dollars.

In France the Joliot-Curies had unravelled most technical aspects of the chain reaction in 1939. Frédéric Joliot-Curie was fascinated by the idea of making use of nuclear fission in a nuclear power plant. Faced with the imminent occupation of Paris by the advancing German troops he and Irène decided to put their personal interests aside and make sure that their knowledge would not fall into German hands. They outlined the principles of nuclear power generation in a paper, deposited it in a sealed envelope with the Académie des Sciences and spent the war years researching medical applications of radioactivity.

Building a nuclear reactor or an atomic bomb required a significant amount of uranium and tritium ("heavy water"). The only factory that could deliver significant amounts of tritium was located in Norway. To minimize the chances that Germany obtained the materials for a bomb Frédéric Joliot-Curie ordered all of the available "heavy water" from Norway and sent it to England.

The only major uranium deposits known at the time were in the Congo, which was then a Belgian colony. They were owned by the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga (the company that, to secure its mining interests, in 1961 supported the secession of the province of Katanga from the Congo and the murder of Patrice Lumumba, the first president of the Republic of Congo after the end of Belgian colonial rule). As director of the newly established Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, National Centre for Scientific Research) Frédéric Joliot-Curie entered into a legal arrangement that guaranteed CNRS five tons of uranium oxide, technical assistance with the construction of a reactor and a million francs. In return, all discoveries were to be patented by a syndicate and the profits shared equally between the Union Minière and the CNRS. (Latour, 1995) The uranium oxide was also transferred to England before German troops entered Paris.

After the war the Joliot-Curies became Commissioners for Atomic Energy and instrumental for France's nuclear energy programme. Their past as activists in the peace movement and in the Résistance against German occupation was acknowledged by the public, but Frédéric's membership in the Communist Party led to his removal as High Commissioner.

On 6 August 1945, 3 months after the end of World War II in Europe, the USA dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing between 70,000 to 80,000 people instantly and causing many casualties from radiation sickness over the following years. It shocked Japan and the world. Whether it was instrumental in bringing Japan to surrender is questionable. The Japanese forces were already exhausted, and surrender could not have been delayed much longer. There can, however, be no doubt that the second atomic bomb, dropped on Nagasaki 3 days later, can only be classified as a war crime. It had no military value whatsoever but killed 39,000 civilians, injured 29,000 and destroyed 40% of the city.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki had shown that the USA had the bomb. (See also the blog entry of 9 March related to this paragraph.) It soon became clear that before long they would also have long range missiles that could reach the Soviet Union without the need of bombers flying over it: Wernher von Braun, the Head of Germany's rocket programme responsible for the production of the V2 rockets that had bombed London, had been taken to Texas. As a member of the SS, Hitler's elite corps, he should have been taken before a court, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the USA cleared him; he became technical director of the US Army's Ballistic Missile Agency and a citizen of the USA.

From 1942 the USSR nuclear weapons programme had made good progress, assisted by sympathizers in the Manhattan Project who had provided detailed scientific information. But the Soviet Union had no known uranium deposits, and attempts to receive deliveries from the Manhattan Project as part of the war alliance had produced only token supplies. Stalin knew that Germany had found uranium deposits in the Hartz mountains and in occupied Czechoslovakia but had no information on their exact locations. He decided that the only way for the USSR to get into possession of uranium was to get the supplies stored in the German laboratories in Berlin.

One of the foremost reasons why Stalin wanted the Red Army to enter Berlin before any of the other allied troops could reach the city was his intention to reach the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics first and take its uranium oxide supplies to Moscow. History knows that the operation was successful.[7] Four years after the end of the war the USSR performed its first nuclear test. The Cold War had started.



Anderle et al. (1966) Weltgeschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.

Bartel et al. (1967) Deutsche Geschichte in Daten. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften, Berlin.

Beevor, A. (2003) Berlin, the downfall 1945. Penguin Books, London.

Bowker, G. (1995) Manufacturing Thruth: The Development of Industrial Research. In: M. Serres (editor): A History of Scientific Thought, Elements of a History of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, 583 - 610. (Translation of Éléments d'Histoire des Sciences, Bordas, Paris, 1989)

Crowther, J. C. (1967) The Social Relations of Science, revised edition. The Cresset Press, London.

Latour, B. (1995) Joliot: History and physics mixed together. In: M. Serres (editor): A History of Scientific Thought, Elements of a History of Science. Blackwell, Oxford, 611 - 635. (Translation of Éléments d'Histoire des Sciences, Bordas, Paris, 1989)

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