Thursday, August 07, 2014

The only Czechoslovak citizen behind the first nuclear bombs

By Karel Pacner, a partial transl. by LM

It's another Hiroshima anniversary and this article is rather interesting, I thought.

The only Czech who was assisting during the birth of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima

Almost nobody knows that one emigrant from Czechoslovakia was called to the narrowest team of the Manhattan Project by Robert Oppenheimer. His name was George Placzek.

A photo from Leipzig, 1931. The unsung hero of physics George Placzek sits on the left side from Bohr.

He was born in Brno, Moravia, in a mostly German-speaking Jewish family but the family was a proper Czechoslovak family which means that they spoke Czech at home, too.

Placzek would leave his homeland long before the Second World War. He would never return back. All his (Jewish) relatives were murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. And he knew way too much about the atomic bombs so he just couldn't be allowed to move to a country where communists were taking over.

In summer 1938, Placzek and Victor Weisskopful would spend a week on Robert Oppenheimer's ranch in New Mexico. A year earlier, they would visit the Soviet Union for several months and they had stories to tell Oppenheimer.

The original plan was to work for a much longer time in the country devoted to communism. Placzek would already have spent half a year in the middle of 1933 in Lev Landau's institute in Kharkov (nothing Ukrainian about that institute!) and he liked it over there very much. Alex Weissberg (?) would be a boss of a department in the Physical-Technological Institute over there. However, both of them could see various people disappearing. Rumors were spreading that those people had been arrested by the secret police and nobody was sure that he wouldn't disappear during the night, too. The air was full of fear. Nevertheless, they were convinced that as foreigners, they were safe.

When Placzek was asked in Kharkov what conditions he would demand to accept a job over there, he enumerated four expectations that were normal in the West and added: "And the chassain has to disappear." The Hebrew word meant the dictator Joseph Stalin. Barbara Ruhemann was both a wife of a German physicist who worked there as well as a staunch communist. So she informed the secret police about that quote. Placzek and Weisskopf were "punished" – they were kicked out of the USSR.

They were lucky. Austrian communist Alex Weissberg who would work in Kharkov would be less lucky. He was accused of constructed charges and convicted to 3 years in prison. Albert Einstein, French communist Frederic Joliot-Curie, and others would send heart-breaking yet futile letters to Joseph Stalin. Later, he was able to escape as well as survive the resistance in Warsaw as well as a Nazi prisoner.

Both physicists Weissberg and Placzek would originally be leftists which is also why their looks were attracted to the Soviet Union. Their last visit of that country has cured them. They realized that socialism founded by Lenin and Stalin was based on terror. When they were telling Oppenheimer about their experienced – and he had even been a member of a communist cell in California – even he was said to have sobered up. The signatures under the friendship treaty between the communist Moscow and the Nazi Berlin as well as the subsequent division of Poland between both empires has completed the transformation of these physicists. They have arguably become anticommunists at that time.

George Placzek was born on September 26th, 1905, in the center of Brno (Brünn) on 3 Grosser Platz (now the Square of the Freedom) in the family of a German-speaking Jewish entrepreneur. His dad Alfred bought a textile factory in Alexovice (now a part of Ivančice) from the co-owner Lous Skene in 1913.

During the winter, the family would live in Brno. They would spend the summers in Alexovice. George had a younger brother Fritz and a sister named Edith. The family would speak Czech as well and the kids would have friends among the local boys and girls. The family was deeply socially sensitive, supported the poor, and that's why they became honorary citizens of Alexovice.

After the final high school exam George would leave for Vienna and he has also attended the German University in Prague for three semesters. He didn't plan to become the boss of the factory. The younger brother seemed a better pick for that job. He was probably pushed towards science by Dr Baruch Placzek, the rabbi of the Land of Moravia who was an amateur scientist at the same moment and who was a friend with the founder of genetics, Johann Mendel, and was also exchanging mail with Charles Darwin, the father of evolution.

The student defended his dissertation about electrostatics, perfect grades, in July 1928 on the University of Vienna. Dr Placzek went to the world.

He would first work in Utrecht, the Netherlands. While writing down his studies and research, he would always greatly suffer. Each page had to be written many times and the paper destroyed and thrown to the trash can before he found formulations that would finally satisfy him.

Two years later, he went to Leipzig to Prof Werner Heisenberg who was already recognized as a leading theoretical physicist. The picture of the visiting scholars who would later contribute to the development of the bomb in the U.S. Manhattan Project was taken in late 1930. While everyone was looking to the camera self-confidently, Placzek's eyes were looking towards the floor. "He was a bit different than others," Italian man Gilberto Bernardini would later remember. "He was unusually good a brilliant as a physicist and his cultural and intellectual interests were surprisingly broad."

In Winter 1931-32 Placzek would spend some time in Rome, under Enrico Fermi, where he befriended Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Edoardo Amaldi. He would meet most of them during the Manhattan Project a decade later.

The young Czech had an enormous talent for languages. He would be able to communicate in the local language in all countries he visited. A legend has it that he learned Italian overnight by reading Decameron, a classic book. Aside from Czech and German, he could speak English, French, Spanish, Italian, Danish, Hebrew, Arabic, about 10 languages in total. He also had a weakness for women which forced the poor man to find a lover at every place he would visit.

The article may be too long for me and you... Try to continue with the automatic translation or another text about George Placzek if you're interested.


  1. Concerning your comment regarding the deterioration of the world. Are you aware that the great western backed Ukrainian government is sending its conscripts off to war without adequate food and ammunition. Worst, there is inadequate medical supplies and treatment. Supposedly, there is scant battlefield evacuation and many injured soldiers die because there is no one to help them.
    The Ukraine government is claiming that less than 400 soldiers have been killed. There are reports that the real death count is anywhere from 4,000 to 12,000 (along with maybe 2,000 military vehicles destroyed). Supposedly, they are not sending the bodies home for decent burial but are merely dumping them in mass graves. The soldiers are then reported as possible deserters.
    I believe that the real death count should be reported, and that governments should provide proper medical treatment and burial for their soldiers. It seems that these issues are not important to the US and EU who continue to praise a Kiev government that "can do no wrong".

  2. I wonder who the sanctions are hurting more: Russia, who can turn around and sell to the BRICS, or the EU, who seems to have lost an important export market? This reminds me of the Blazing Saddles scene where he takes himself hostage and points the gun at his own head. Only this is more brutal in that the EU has shot themselves in the foot a few times just to let everyone know how serious they really are -- or at least how serious the US is. Shorter US policy: no allied economy is safe from destruction in attaining the goal of punishing Russia.

  3. Putin is no hero, but he is crafty and understands his limitations with NATO breathing down his neck, creating havoc and attempting with great effort to isolate Russia. There are 20,000 Russian troops on the border because Russian-speaking Ukes are migrating north by hundreds of thousands.

    Much anxiety has been expressed for Gazan genocide, nary a word about the innocent and defenseless natives of Donetsk.

  4. The most important aspect of the Manhattan Project should have been diversity. A carefully crafted structure of races, minorities, and sexual orientations would have created personal journals of unlimited value for the ages. Instead, brute patriarchal discrimination based upon objective performance killed a quarter-million Japanese as an obscure religious ritual. (Madame Chien-Shiung Wu was obvious tokenism.)

    Social advocacy demands reality arises from intent not performance. Stalin's GPU; OGPU; GUGB; NKGB and MGB safeguarded social intent. They were flawless and vital.

  5. Russia will now boost its farm output and become self-sufficient, preferably overnight. What is an agricultural output of Crimea?

  6. Haha! :) Very good.

  7. How old was the cool young boy with the good questions?

    Lenny Susskind once said too, that children are less afraid to ask questions than his students ;-)

  8. My guess is that the brown-haired smiling guy who probably impressed me most could have been 10 but I am not sure. I admit that I wanted to believe that this is exactly what I would have looked like at that age.

    This guy wasn't just unafraid and curious. He really knew what he was talking about, with some correct professional astrophysicist's terminology, and so on. ;-)

    There was also a blonde guy who was very curious plus about two guys with different degrees of autism.

    On the previous night, in the string lecture for the high school math gurus, I felt that some girls in the audience were the more reliable pillar of my audience, and girls actually beat the boys in the requests to have the PowerPoint presentation etc. Not that I would have evidence that someone understood it.

    The basic-school talk about black holes also had many girls, close to 1/2, but I feel that they were terribly bored and the ratio was a matter of quotas.

    I had to sign about 87 documents for the European Union - this is not meant to be an exaggeration but an honest estimate! ;-) Some of these documents said that I vowed that some handicapped people had to attend my talks which is a duty (it was actually true). But I was told that a mother with kids below 15 is counted by the EU as a handicapped person on the labor market, no kidding, so it was enough because there were mothers! ;-)

    Many crazy things in the otherwise fine experience, you may imagine. This was my first intense exposure to the Jizera Mountains, I believe. Typical Sudeten. A very sophisticated landscape - skillful population living in the mountains - that can't hide that its prosperity relatively peaked something like 80 years ago. The degradation later was about 1/2 due to communism, and 1/2 due to the loss of the Germans (and the overall population, anyway). My honest estimate again.

  9. A Pol in every Pot, a war in every barrage.

  10. Blazing Saddles :)

  11. Sounds like fun. I gave a relativity talk to a grade 2 class once :)
    OT: any interest in Mark's latest (I think) paper:
    Brian Swingle was one of the first, I believe who proposed entanglement created wormholes. Was he at Harvard when you were there?
    Here is a recent talk's power point slides--
    looks interesting, but I don't know a lot of the formalism so have much trouble following it. Rindler was active when I was doing my masters--and before.

  12. The personal racial overtones with Obama can't be ignored, Gordon. Ever since the Syrian crisis last summer, when Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin referred to the US (and by default Obama) as being "like a monkey with a hand grenade," I wonder if the Black half of Obama is feeling personally disrespected by "evil racist" very White Russia:

    Any personal anger on the part of Obama would only conflate the already existing geopolitical and economic confrontation between Russia and the US even more. Of course, the banksters and the Neocons would eagerly take advantage of and use for their own agenda any kind of personal racial hostility that Obama is carrying towards Putin and Russia.

  13. Learning italian by reading Decameron is an excellent choice for a man with a " weakness for women". It is a 14th century spicy classic collection of short stories by Boccaccio. Very much enjoyed by everybody when read in high school.