"The most serious reproach made against us by the other countries of the Western world is just that: that a country with such a high degree of culture as ours could regress to such barbaric behavior — and for us too, living inside Germany, that was something that was difficult for us to grasp and to understand in its entirety." Elisabeth Heisenberg, p. 65, in her memoir of her life with Werner Heisenberg, Das politische Leben eines Unpolitischen [The Political Life of an Unpolitical Person], R.Piper & Co., Munich 1980.

Luckily, Americans are spared this anguish since their government has determined that their war crimes are legal.

Werner Heisenberg: Stories

January 4, 2009

There are three stories about the physicist Werner Heisenberg that I'm familiar with. It's probably best to take them one at a time, with a very brief introduction as to who he actually was. Here's the first of the three.

Werner Heisenberg was born in 1901 and died in 1976. He was a theoretician, a student of Niels Bohr, and won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1932. The latter's citation reads, "for the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of which has, inter alia, led to the discovery of the allotropic forms of hydrogen."

To most physics students he's known for his enunciation of the "Uncertainty Principle" which bears his name:

In words, the equation says that the product of the uncertainty in a body's momentum delta p and its position delta q is equal to Planck's constant. In an even wordier form, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle says that you can't know both an object's position and its momentum to any desired precision. As you attempt to pin down its position q with greater and greater precision, you find that you are less and less able to determine its momentum p.

Unlike some German physicists, especially Jews, who decided to leave Germany after Hitler came to power on January 30, 1933, Heisenberg made a conscious decision, in the spring of 1939, to stay. All of my stories about him derive from this fact.

Now that I've procrastinated as long as I can, I have to decide which Heisenberg story to tell first.

OK, it's the spook story.

My reference for this story is the excellent book, Heisenberg's War, by Thomas Powers (Alfred Knopf, New York, 1993).


Heisenberg's War
Organized sports, assassination, and weapons of mass destruction, respectively, coexisting amicably: Casey Stengel, Morris Berg, and General Leslie Groves in 1959.

Heisenberg's War
The physicist: Werner Heisenberg
Heisenberg's War
The informer: Paul Scherer

The Physicist And The Assassin

ometime late in 1944, Allen Dulles, the OSS European Bureau Chief, based in neutral Switzerland, learned from a Swiss physicist informer, Paul Scherrer, that Werner Heisenberg had been invited to the University of Zurich to present a paper on S-matrix theory, a powerful mathematical tool for describing the input and output states of colliding particles. The OSS knew that Heisenberg was the key figure in Germany's nuclear research and that if he was working on the bomb his elimination would be a significant loss to that program.

The OSS quickly hatched a plan to assassinate Heisenberg in Zurich if he was developing the bomb. They picked a former baseball player by the name of Morris ("Mo") Berg to be the hit man. The only qualifications I'm able to attribute to Mo is that he was multilingual and homicidal. Mo's presence and that of an accompanying OSS officer, Leo Martinuzzi, at the seminar was cleared with Scherrer.

Arrangements were made for Berg and Martinuzzi to travel to Zurich from the US. Their instructions were to decide whether Heisenberg was working on the bomb. If they decided he was, Mo was to murder Heisenberg then and there.

The seminar took place in the late afternoon of December 18. 1944. The meeting was open to the public and no security precautions were taken. Mo entered the seminar room with a pistol in his pocket. He and Martinuzzi seated themselves in the second row. Heisenberg began his S-matrix presentation at about 4:15 with his assassin no more than a few feet from where he was standing at the blackboard. His highly theoretical presentation apparently contained none of the key words Berg was trained to listen for.

When the session and the ensuing questions ended, Heisenberg made ready to return to his hotel, which was within walking distance. Mo approached him and asked if he could accompany him on the walk back. Heisenberg agreed and the two walked alone together in that Zurich winter night in 1944, a scientist and his assassin. Again, none of the deadly words passed Heisenberg's lips and Mo Berg, the American assassin, and Werner Heisenberg, the German physicist, parted company.