Key Point: Heisenberg and his colleagues were very smart, but they made fundamental conceptual errors throughout the war that led them to believe producing an atomic weapon was more difficult and impracticable than was the case.
The most nightmarish of World War II alternative history scenarios is the one in which Nazi Germany acquires atomic weapons. In fact, by the spring of 1945, when America’s massive nuclear program was reaching its culmination, the Nazi atomic program consisted of one experimental reactor in a cave in southern Germany, operated by scientists who lacked a clear conception of how to build an atomic weapon.
Even if the German scientists had known what they were doing, they still lacked suitable radioactive material to produce a weapon. One of World War II’s most remarkable and controversial stories is just how the Nazi atomic program came to this sorry pass.
The potential power of atomic energy is a corollary of Einstein’s famous Theory of Relativity equation, E = MC2. Simply put, the equation means that all matter is energy. To determine the energy contained in any bit of matter, one need only multiply its mass times the square of the speed of light. As the speed of light is somewhere in excess of 186,000 miles per second, the resulting number is correspondingly huge.
Early in the 20th century, physicists realized that if it was possible to release the atomic energy in a piece of matter, say a brick, they could create a doomsday weapon. Fortunately, the atoms in bricks, and in almost all ordinary matter, are quite stable and not likely to erupt in an atomic chain reaction. However, by the mid-1930s, experiments with the unstable element uranium revealed the potential to tap into its store of nuclear energy and create machines of awesome power.
Nazi Germany’s Rejection of “Jewish Physics”