Physicists' World War II Meeting Sparks Class on Ethics

January 07, 2009
January 7, 2009 — Large elements of history can turn on small moments.

One of these moments was a 1941 meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his former mentor, the half-Jewish Niels Bohr, who was living in the Nazi-occupied country. Among the topics discussed: the ethics of working on an atomic bomb.

After their meeting, Heisenberg returned to lead the atomic weapons program in Germany, which had conquered much of continental Europe and was at war with England and Russia. Two years later, Bohr escaped Denmark to Sweden and then to the United States, which was by then at war with Japan and Germany, and joined Allied scientists working on an atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M.

After the war, Heisenberg and Bohr attempted unsuccessfully to clarify what they had discussed in Copenhagen. Scientists and historians have continued to debate the issue. Various parties have speculated that Heisenberg was trying to assure Bohr that the German scientists were actually stalling bomb development, or he was trying to downplay Germany's quest for atomic energy, or that he was trying to recruit Bohr to the Nazi cause.
That meeting is the focus of "Science, Intention, and Ethics: Copenhagen September 1941," a University of Virginia January Term course taught by Patricia Click, an associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Department of Science, Technology and Society.

A historian by training, Click became fascinated by the Heisenberg-Bohr meeting after seeing Michael Frayn's 1998 play "Copenhagen" — so much so that she uses the play and the meeting in a unit on ethics in a fourth-year STS course she teaches.

"It is an ethical discussion about making weapons of mass destruction in the 20th and 21st centuries," she said.

Heisenberg directed Germany's atomic weapons program, but never actually developed a bomb, Click said. Bohr worked on one of the bombs that eventually ended the war in the Pacific; it killed tens of thousands of people in Nagasaki, Japan.

The course includes an overview of the history of theoretical physics in the period prior to World War II, as well as a history of nuclear armaments after the war. Students review scholarly essays and primary source materials, including taped interviews, as well as watching a British Broadcasting Corp. production of Frayn's play. With the longer January term classes, Click said the students watch the play in one sitting and use it to launch discussions.

"Technology comes from a broad social and cultural context," Click said. "This incident shows how people can see the same thing differently. Understanding the role of perception and intention is crucial when making ethical decisions.”

— By Matt Kelly