Monday, September 13, 2010

Politicians telling scientists what to do: the Deutsche Physik movement

My favorite moment in the entire tragicomic saga of the Nazi-era "Deutsche Physik" movement was this: Heinrich Himmler was a grade school friend of Germany's greatest quantum and particle physicist, Werner Heisenberg. Yes, that Heisenberg.

So, Heisenberg's Mom called Himmler's Mom on the telephone and politely but firmly asked if she would please tell her son to leave Heisenberg alone! Not bad from someone that, because of his concern for his nation's loss of talented scientists, was labeled a "White Jew" that ought to be made to "disappear."

"Aryan Physics" was a movement in Germany to create a muscular breed of physics that eliminated the "Jewish" influence of Albert Einstein and his paradigm-shifting work with relativity. The thing I find shocking about all this is that it began with old-guard, reactionary old scientists that were outraged by Einstein's theory of relativity and quantum mechanics (in other words, what today we'd call modern physics), paradigm shifters that did away with many darling and pet theories, like the Luminferous Aether, that many old-guard scientists were outraged by in a way that mirrors old geologists of the 1960s opposed to plate tectonics and continental drift. Quantum Mechanics, in particular, was a theory less than a decade old that explained that within an atom, the laws of classical physics don't apply but their behavior can only be described with probabilities.

Under the Nazis, old guard physicists found an ally, because science could play into the sort of political tropes the Nazis liked. The effect was astounding: out of the 26 known German nuclear physicists, almost half left Germany and defected. Many were Jewish, as under Nazi laws Jews were forbidden from holding posts in Higher Education, a position that echoes the paranoid, conspiratorial fears of anti-intellectuals on the right, who see centers of learning as hives of indoctrination. At the risk of Godwinning myself and thus failing the internet, the parallels just write themselves.

The American Operation: Paperclip, as well as the Soviet efforts to recruit disenfranchised German scientists, meant that Germany's loss was ultimately the Manhattan Project's gain. Otto Robert Frisch, for instance, was a Jewish refugee that after leaving Germany calculated the exact amount of Uranium needed to reach critical mass.

In the end of course, the Nazis eventually came around and realized they scared away an entire generation by putting political loyalty and ideology over the independent conclusions of science, but the damage was done: they suffered a colossal brain drain that cost them the atomic bomb.

Suddenly, the necessity for tenure becomes clearer: part of the reason it exists is that the only environment that honest science can be practiced is one with academic freedom and the ability to reach conclusions that are occasionally inconvenient to government and industry alike.

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