‘When it Comes to Moral Choices, Outstanding Physicists Are Very Ordinary’
Philip Ball’s new book, “Serving the Reich,” considers how “some of the great 20th century physicists … stayed in Germany throughout the thirties, and in some cases throughout” World War II.
At The Guardian, physicist and science writer Jon Butterworth reports:
Ball focuses on Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg and Peter Debye, all brilliant, and Nobel prize winners (even though the Nazis officially boycotted the prize from 1935). The first two were founders of quantum mechanics who remained in Germany throughout the war. The third, Debye, was a brilliant scientist on the border with chemistry, who led the Third Reich’s premier physics institute until he left for America in 1940.
Butterworth writes that “Planck comes across as a rather tragic figure,” “there is little… good to say about Heisenberg,” and “Debye is arguably the most confusing, and probably the least discussed to date.”
Ball’s assessment of all three individuals is neither uncritical nor totally condemnatory. His harshest words are for the almost total lack of anything we would recognise as a moral standpoint in “German Physics” before and during the war, and the hasty postwar “de-Nazification process” in which much was swept under the carpet. Much of the guilt was hung upon Johannes Stark and Philipp Lenard and their crazy “Aryan Physics” movement. Mediocre physicists who rejected relativity and quantum mechanics as “decadent Jewish science”, they were clearly culpable; but the fact that the German physics establishment resisted them does not provide it with absolution. Even the Nazi hierarchy were not stupid enough to confuse science and racist ideology completely, especially when potentially war-winning technologies were at stake. The Nazi leadership seem to have treated the proponents of ‘Aryan Science’ like an enthusiastic but incontinent puppy; tolerated, sometimes indulged, but slightly embarrassing and not taken at all seriously.
Ball concludes that the physicists in general had a complete lack of a plan, or even of moral position. This seems to be consistent with Meitner’s attitude to her colleagues after the war, too. She knew most of them personally, and was acutely aware of the pressures they were all under, as well as the consequences of inaction. Her moral authority is higher than most. I want to read a book about her now.
Continue reading here.
— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.Wait, before you go…
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