Heisenberg’s uncertainty extended to his decision to stay
in Germany when the grand dame of German physics, Lise
Meitner, fled. Oh, he was certain he would stay. He was certain
Nazi oppression would be defeated, too. He did not know how
long it would take, though, or how it would be done.
He stayed out of loyalty to his people, to his culture and to the
project of incubating what his mentor Arnold Sommerfeld had
called “pockets of sanity” amid the rampantly propagating fascist
Pockets of sanity, fixed points in transformations, he was
convinced Hitler’s following would prove to be an aberration,
a chance smattering at an extreme fringe of the German cultural
and historical persona, whose ultimate histogram he firmly believed
to be statistically predetermined for great goodness of heart, sobriety
of reason and generosity of spirit.
Pockets of sanity, crystallization points of true German good
nature, led to bad science, for he told Hitler’s deputies again and
again that a nuclear fission bomb was an engineering impossibility.
Locked in a room in London for weeks after the war with other captured
physicists, hidden microphones recorded his mastery of the art of hedging
what he knew or did not know, believed or did not believe. By trying to
measure Werner’s sincerity about what he knew, what he believed, when,
why and how he dealt this expertise to the Nazi handlers whom he clearly
despised but whom he insisted he never intentionally misled, post-war Allied
intelligence could only arrive at deeper and deeper layers of
For the more precisely one aims to shed light on the sincerity or honesty
of one who claims undying loyalty and fealty to his tribe, the more
viscerally one scatters any indicative gauge of the moral or ethical fiber
of the man.
If he was loyal and faithful to a fault, perhaps this fault had opened a fissure
wide enough to sink the entire Nazi atom bomb program, for certainly he had
chafed under the regime’s initial denunciation of his work as contaminated by
association with physicists of Jewish descent he so greatly esteemed – Meitner,
Max Born, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr – under whose tutelage and inspiration
he had sprouted as a young protègè.
It had been one thing to banish their bodies and their minds, but to banish
even their brilliant ideas and their established and proven principles and
theorems, was an act of Nazi insanity he certainly never emulated in his own
thinking. How, then, could he not have seen what Lise and Einstein’s nephew
Otto saw in exile, hunched over a letter, butts chilling on a stump in the snow,
poring over the results of a final experiment Lise had instructed Werner’s
colleagues to perform when they’d secretly sought her advice while traveling
in Copenhagen. How could he not see the explosive potential of the energy
release from the splitting of an atom, and the feasibility of its pre-containment
and triggered release?
He most certainly loathed the Nazis with reason enough that he could have
easily felt justified in playing against them their own fanatically racist reluctance
to believe any “degenerate” Physics that had come from a brain oxygenated by
even partially Jewish blood. He could have considered it pocket-wise sanity
to keep his understanding of how a fission bomb could be built away from
the madmen running the state by giving them only what analysis could be
achieved without giving credence to the work of Meitner, Einstein, Born and
But this is not what Werner claimed after the Nazi regime was dead and gone.
Instead, he simply insisted until his dying breath that he never realized that
a bomb could be built that could harness the release of energy all his exiled
associates clearly saw in the fission equations.
Was he mad? Did his pocket of sanity drive him to distraction? Or did his
faith in the German spirit truly overcome his brilliance as a scientist? Did
he not see how a bomb could be built, because he could not accept even the
possibility that the destiny of his people could be to create such a weapon
of mass slaughter? Could it be something more than simply a psychological
block? Could it be a deeper principle of the electrochemistry of the brain,
that neurons cannot arrange themselves into beliefs that would undermine
the basic motivation neuron patterns out of which those beliefs are
extrapolated? Is it physically impossible to both know something is true
when the knowing of it would vitiate the very underlying purpose in one’s
truth-seeking? Could it be, in other words, that a fact cannot physically
be known to be both true and evil in the mind of a person mentally
predisposed to good purposes?
If that is the case, then a collaborator is one who sees facts and infers truths
with a certain degree of clarity, and shares this knowledge with the oppressor,
but to a corresponding degree only fuzzily perceives the evil in that sharing.
And Werner would be, then, not a collaborator, but something else, someone
who perceives the evil of what the oppressor does with a high degree of clarity,
but to a correspondingly high degree cannot discern certain facts whose clarity
would result in his becoming fully complicit in that evil. We could call the likes
of Werner, perhaps, a co-illusionator.
Any logic teacher can tell you how purpose-built human minds are for refusing
to follow inescapable chains of inference. The fact that just about anyone you
meet will tell you that logic is very difficult, even puzzling or perplexing, to
their brains, shows clearly just how heavily invested our species survival has
been in the fallacious evasion of reason.
Lise realized that a bomb could be built when she saw from the data how a heavy
atom, like the burgeoning dewdrop Niels had most recently likened it to, simply
slipped apart at the touch of an aphid’s foot.
So, perhaps, can a mind see two things in one, one through one dewdrop and
another through its twin. And if the estimate of each is diminished in the splitting,
who can say whether Werner’s unbroken reticence to speak of those times would
have exploded into cathartic expiation and carnage had he let another tendril
reach that moistened leaf of remembrance that he harbored in his bowels.
For inference is risk, as the Nancy Drew novels that flooded the world during
the rise of the Hitler regime so splendidly portrayed, and to believe in a world
where the drawing of a conclusion must follow inexorably from its premises
is to believe in the impossibility of morning in its calmness and dampness and
the immorality of the disturbingly preserving silence, on most topics of great
importance, that is generally observed among the God forsaken multitudes.
Thus is our Fifth Amendment guarantee against self-incrimination tied to our
First Amendment right to free exercise of religion, in that together they forbid the
state, by which is meant the people, from compelling any one of us to be
reasonable, by any measure.