The Fractured Physics Community

Why did the collaborative community of European and American physicists scatter and disband in the years before World War II?

A 1930 conference attended by physicists including the Danish Niels Bohr, German Werner Heisenberg, Austrian Wolfgang Pauli, Russians George Gamow and Lev Landau, and the Dutch Hans Kramers, all mentioned in COPENHAGEN. (Photo: HeisenbergFamily.org)

In Copenhagen, Werner Heisenberg says that the development of quantum physics “shatter[s] the objective universe.” The emerging field shook the accepted foundation of science to its core, and a thriving community of physicists all over Europe and America collectively worked together to clear the rubble that earthquake left behind. But despite this shared thirst for knowledge and passion for discovery, the international brotherhood of theoretical physics became a casualty of the rising unrest that led to World War II.

Quantum physics made major advancements during the 1920s and 1930s as scientists in England, America, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and beyond collaborated on research, built upon each other’s work, and met to discuss discoveries and hash out solutions. The German Werner Heisenberg partnered with the Danish Niels Bohr, and also with the Austrian Wolfgang Pauli. The Italian Enrico Fermi and American Robert Oppenheimer studied under Max Born in Germany. In pursuit of the truth of the atomic and subatomic world, the theoretical physicists of the 1920s and 1930s crossed national boundaries to collaborate and expand each other’s work.

However, this international community of theoretical physicists was not always celebrated. While German scientists were often at the center of these discussions, the status of theoretical physics was troubled in that country. There was a strong governmental preference for experimental physics over theoretical physics in Germany; the provable data and quantifiable results of the former were much more attractive to the German authorities than the more exploratory, less concrete world of theoretical physics.

Many of the figures mentioned in COPENHAGEN were caught in the breakdown of the international scientific community. Otto Hahn (left; photo: Biography) and Max Von Laue (middle; photo: Wikipedia) were both German physicists who remained in the country throughout the war, but were opposed to Nazism. Pascual Jordan (right; photo: Physics Today) also remained, but became a member of the Nazi party.

Because of the German preference for experimental physics and the steadily rising anti-Semitism in the country, Jewish scientists were blocked from positions and research opportunities in that field. These obstacles sent many of Germany’s brightest scientific minds into the then “less-respected” theoretical physics instead. As a result, much of the advancement in theoretical physics was undertaken by Jewish scientists: just a few that you will hear mentioned in the play include Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, and Max Born.

Albert Einstein (photo: Biography), Lise Meitner (photo: Wired), and Max Born (photo: Wikipedia)

Even these university and research positions were not safe for long, though. Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began taking advantage of the already growing anti-Semitism in the country, targeting Jews and Jewish academics in particular. They were dismissed from their positions, and most fled the country — including Einstein, Meitner, and Born. The theoretical science community in Germany was nearly decimated. A giant of theoretical physics remained: Werner Heisenberg.

Heisenberg, who wasn’t Jewish, retained his job and his position within the community. However, a movement for “Aryan Physics” led by two German Nobel Prize-winners — Philipp Lenard and Johannes Stark — worked to undermine Heisenberg as well. They labeled theoretical physics, and Einstein’s work in particular, as “Jewish Physics,” and undertook a targeted campaign in the press to label Heisenberg a “White Jew” for continuing to teach Einstein and his theory of relativity. Heisenberg was harassed, surveilled, and interrogated for more than a year before Heinrich Himmler interceded and had the campaign called off.

Heisenberg with Wolfgang Pauli (left) and Enrico Fermi (right) in 1927, before both Pauli and Fermi fled Europe for the United States. (photo: CERN)

This years-long campaign against “Jewish physics” in Germany would put an end to the free collaboration of American and European scientists. The theoretical physics community had operated without borders, bound more to a loyalty to science and knowledge than to any nation. But the rising tide of war forced these scientists to choose sides, fracturing the scientific network and cutting scientists in Germany and German-occupied countries out of the conversation. Colleagues were pitted against colleagues; scientists worked against their own homelands. Europe, and Germany in particular, lost many of the theoretical physicists who would prove crucial to the work that led to the atomic bomb. Germany’s disdain for the science and for the Jewish scientists working in it changed the map of physicists, and the course of scientific and world history.

Copenhagen is onstage at the Lantern January 11 through February 18, 2018. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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Lantern Theater Company

Lantern Theater Company

Creating intimate and engaging theater in Philadelphia since 1994.