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Astronomical Tales

How did the Nobel Prize-winning father of quantum mechanics wind up heading the Nazi atomic bomb project?

The man who headed the atomic bomb project for Adolf Hitler was Werner Heisenberg. But before that, Heisenberg won the Nobel Prize for his theory of quantum mechanics, which he published at the ripe old age of 23. Here's how this genius wound up trying to build atomic weapons for the Third Reich:

Heisenberg went to the Maximilian School at Munich until 1920, when he went to the University of Munich to study physics under Sommerfeld, Wien, Pringsheim, and Rosenthal. During the winter of 1922-1923 Heisenberg went to Göttingen to study physics under Max Born, Franck, and Hilbert.

From 1924 until 1925 he worked, under a Rockefeller grant, with Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen, returning for the summer of 1925 to Göttingen.

What does the head of the Nazi Atom Bomb Project and the Father of Quantum Physics have in common?
the answer

In 1926 he was appointed Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen under Niels Bohr and in 1927, when he was only 26, he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Leipzig. With this kind of training it's no wonder that in 1941, after being appointed Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics, the Nazi leadership tapped him to head their A-Bomb project. Fortunately for the allies, Einstein, Bohr, and other scientists who had defected to the Allied side succeeded in perfecting the weapon first.

At the end of the Second World War, Heisenberg and other German physicists were taken prisoner by American troops and sent to England. But in 1946 Hesienberg was allowed to return to Germany and reorganize, with his colleagues, the Institute for Physics at Göttingen, which was later named the Max Planck Institute for Physics.

Like Werner von Braun, Heisenberg was too valuable to the post-war allies to be considered a war criminal. Instead he lectured in England, the US and Scotland and lived on to play his beloved piano with his wife and seven children.

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