Norwegian "Heavy Water War" on Heisenberg et al.
Last night, I accidentally caught the first episode of the Heavy Water War on TV, a (mostly) Norwegian 6-episode series from early 2015 about the Norwegian heavy water sabotage during the Second World War.
The program was produced in Norwegian-Danish-British coproduction, the budget was $10 million or so, and it was shot in Norway and Czechia. See a 6-minute trailer.
My understanding is that the program was mainly created to promote this courageous picture of the Norwegian folks during the war. Such "Old Norwegian Legends" are particularly needed probably because the Norwegians have become the ultimate symbols of collaborationists with the Nazis, and the word "a quisling" – named after the Norwegian war-time leader Vidkun Quisling – became a synonym with a traitor who maximally cooperates with a Nazi or similar force.
OK, in this program, we can watch a different Norway, a nation of brave chemists – such as Leif Tronstad, a Norwegian career chemist, heavy water worker, and warrior on the British side – who were saving the world from the German nuclear Armageddon.
OK, much of the first episode was about Werner Heisenberg. A likable, modest, shy, pale-face guy who just got a Nobel prize and heard some friendly comments from his older friend Bohr. Heisenberg was – in reality and in this program – a German patriot who wanted to live in Germany throughout his life and who has refused offers from the U.S.
At the same moment, he was an honest and brilliant scientist. So he of course cited and celebrated the Jewish scientists who have made many of the key discoveries in modern physics. We could see some Gestapo cops who were giving Heisenberg hard time because Werner dared to cite the Jewish scientists. In fact, it wasn't the only thing they had against him. They saw him and young scouts who were swimming naked – so they figured out that Heisenberg had to be homosexual. I didn't know about those accusations. His marriage had to be fake, the Nazis said, and so on. Heisenberg must have faked his heterosexuality rather well and happily because he ended up with 7 children. But it's physically possible to do so even if one is "gay", of course. ;-)
OK, Heisenberg was thinking about some broad aspects of nuclear energy – which went somewhat beyond \(E=mc^2\). So he understood the importance of the chain reaction which becomes stronger with time and he could calculate that one kilogram of uranium can give you the same energy as some 15 kilotons of TNT: these are almost precisely the numbers describing the explosion of the Little Boy, the first nuclear bomb that exploded above Hiroshima.
You may imagine that Heisenberg was largely about the science and he was thinking about the big energy for its own sake, as something that could be useful peacefully. But the generals or soldiers who accidentally attended his talks were only thrilled by one thing. The energy expressed in the mass units of TNT sounds like a bomb. So they could destroy London with this pineapple, they happily repeated after Heisenberg. They were wowed. "Could you please repeat the sentence about the TNT, Prof Heisenberg!?"
Heisenberg was also shown as visiting Copenhagen (the Nazi permission to travel to Denmark was a pain in the aß, too). The friendship was killed over there. The program realistically explains it as the result of both men's fight on the opposite sides of the war – with their reservations but otherwise clearly. Bohr was probably shocked when he figured out that Heisenberg was working for the German army. Heisenberg was an honest scientist but it's clear that he didn't want Germany to lose the war.
The distance between the idea "what the future should look like" was simply so big that even two wise men whose thinking and emotions were relatively close to one another, Bohr and Heisenberg, simply ceased to be friends. The polarization was too strong. Bohr was probably working for the British army and getting some secret instructions etc. Heisenberg was getting orders from the Nazis. He hesitated but I guess that in some big picture, he had to be obedient.
Because the authors are Norwegian, they mostly focus on the Norwegian efforts to cripple the German nuclear program. The main achievement was to slow down the production or transfer of heavy water from Norway to Germany. So the film makes you believe that the survival of the mankind was (almost) all about one liter of heavy water that could have been exported from Norway to Germany every day or not. Well, I have some trouble to believe that this heavy water was that crucial. Heisenberg said he needed the heavy water but it probably wasn't everything he needed; and maybe he didn't quite need it, or didn't need too much of it.
OK, if you assume that this heavy water produced for the German nuclear program was very important, it's an exciting story. Leif Tronstad realizes it's dangerous so he moved to the United Kingdom and starts to fight along with the pragmatic and effective Britons. To his surprise, his new boss is female – whose husband was probably recently killed by the Japanese. She's tough, she's skillful, she's professional. Some of the Norwegian fighters who came to fight along with the Britons are amateurs, however.
The story that I still believe to be correct is that Heisenberg, despite his brilliance, made some basic errors in the reasoning, or failed to make some elementary order-of-magnitude calculations, and he decided that the critical mass of uranium had to be several tons and the bomb was therefore impossible for that reason. I am a theorist but I think that this way to build the bomb had too much thinking. The propagation of neutrons may be complicated but even though I think as a theorist, if I were hired to create the bomb, I would probably try to do it by trial and error. A pineapple of uranium is supposed to be enough to destroy London by a simple \(E=mc^2\) calculation, so I would simply try to detonate a few pineapples of uranium using the best pressures I can have, and it would ultimately work, wouldn't it?
Concerning Norway and fascism, let me remind you that Norway has stolen the two Czech boys. The Czech family asked for a meeting of the boys with their grandfather who was dying. Norway refused. The grandfather Mr Michalák died yesterday. They're very cruel fascists, indeed.
When we were schoolkids in the basic school, we heard an alternative explanation why the German nuclear program was stopped from our teacher of the Czech language and literature, the anti-communist Ms Emilie Bezděková. She knew Ms Marie Uchytilová, a sculptor who created the big sculptural group of the kids of Lidice, the village that was razed by the Nazis as a retaliation for the execution of Reinhard Heydrich. She was also the author of the most famous Czechoslovak coin, the woman seeding a flower.
OK, Ms Bezděková told us that during the war, Ms Uchytilová was interned in a concentration camp somewhere in Northwestern Bohemia or the nearby Saxony (could it have been Falkenau? And is it the Czech Sokolov or another Falkenau? I think so, it must have been the female camp in Svatava/Zwodau) and they were doing some work that was also important for the German nuclear bomb. Ms Uchytilová has sabotaged the German nuclear bomb because she was training herself to sound as a siren, and she has repeatedly started the siren sound and delayed the construction of the German nuclear bomb. I forgot the details, it's 30 years ago when I heard that story. ;-) But yes, I have some doubts whether the physics as understood either by Ms Bezděková or Ms Uchytilová could be perfectly trusted...