Two Acts That Changed World History

by Ed Newman

     Of the dozen or so German physicists who had been assigned the task of building a super-bomb for Germany, Wilhelm Kurtweil more than any knew the consequences for humanity should the Nazis succeed in being the first to achieve this ultimate quest.  Kurtweil had been a leading voice in German physics before the war, was now a respected scientist in the twilight years of a fabulous career.

     For him personally, Nazism was an odious blight on the German peoples, but he had remained silent, hoping against hope that the dark season would pass and German character would rise above its brutal cancer.  In 1942 he lost this hope. 
     The super-bomb project was in full swing.  The Nazis already dominated EuropeEngland was about to fall.
     His worst fear of all: that the project would succeed and his name be forever associated with its success in bringing the world to its knees at Hitler's feet. 
     In November he began praying for divine intervention.  He did not believe in God, but not knowing where else to turn and hoping that he was wrong, he prayed that God would give him wisdom.  The following week he conceived in a dream, visualized with perfect clarity, the formulation for the Atomic Bomb. It was so perfect, so brilliantly conceived, and remarkably clever.  He woke in a sweat.  With his mind overstimulated he spent the rest of that night hastily scratching notes on scraps of paper.  For three successive nights he worked out the details, occasionally catching fitful moments of sleep to sustain his strength.
     On the fourth night, he saw clearly the two actions he must take.  First, he must find a way to undermine -- without drawing suspicion -- the efforts of his fellow scientists.  And second, he must find a way to communicate his findings to the American scientists whom he believed were actively pursuing the same designs. 
     The first task was easy enough.  He saw clearly that the labyrinthian formula was built on a series of equations which flowed with a counterintuitive divergence from logic at several critical points.  How he had seen this so plainly baffled him.  In presenting his discoveries to the group, he merely had to re-arrange the equation at two points and the system would forever fail to detonate.  Once these two re-arrangements were made, no amount of re-evaluation would point to this particular detail as being faulty.  All corrections of the misfire would focus on other areas of the formulation, with over one hundred million permutations.  If all went well, it would be ten years before the mistake was discovered.
     Though he intended to delay as long as possible the presentation of his formulation, he knew he must be the first to present, lest the correct thesis be presented in regards to the critical path.  By early spring of 1943 he saw that two of his young proteges were uncovering significant portions of the path and he was forced to the first task. On April seventh, he presented his findings with cool reserve and astounding humility. The team was ecstatic at the breakthrough.
     The second task proved more daunting.  He must find a way to communicate his
findings to a team of American scientists that would be assembling in pursuit of the same objective.  It was well-known by Nazi intelligence who America's leading scientists were. There were well placed Germans among them. He must secretly make contact and pass along his findings. So great was his fear of creating suspicions that he never once dared to speak to anyone of his intentions.
     In June a secret memo crossed his desk requesting him to cease from all projects not related to the superbomb.  An attachment for his eyes only mentioned that it was now going to be a race.  The Americans were indeed assembling their own team, and time was not an ally.
     Near the end of the attachment he noted a list of names, the names of prominent scientists with whom the German team was in direct competition.  Among the names was a certain Robert Oppenheimer and it seemed as if the letters of his name leaped from the page and were branded into his consciousness.
     "Oppenheimer," he said to himself.
     "Did you say something, Herr Kurtweil?" one of his associates asked.
     Kurtweil did not reply.  Inwardly he vowed to make contact with Oppenheimer.
     By late summer he realized that normal communication channels were closed to him.  There was no way he would risk divulging his secrets, for there was no one he trusted.  Yes, he knew there were malcontents among the ranks, but the magnitude of the stakes made it impossible for him to risk having such knowledge fall into the wrong hands, that is, Nazi hands.

     According to a notation in his journals, on September 12, unable to find sleep, Kurtweil rose from his bed and dressed to go out, perhaps to a cabaret, perhaps for a smoke.  When he opened the door he was startled to find a strange stooped man standing on his doorstep.

     "What do you want?" Kurtweil said sharply.
     "I have watched you, Herr Kurtweil.  The destiny of the world is in your hands."
     "Who are you?  Why are you here?"
     "I have come to help you.  May I come in?"
     Kurtweil was frightened.  Did someone know?  Had something in his manner betrayed him?
     The man put his hand on Kurtweil's arm.  "I know the solution to your problem." 
     Kurtweil began to stammer.  He had not been sleeping. He had not had enough rest.  He tried to pull back, but the stranger held him firmly.
     When their eyes met, Kurtweil saw that he was not in danger. "Come in," he said with resignation.
     They walked to the back of the house to Kurtweil’s study.  It was badly lit so that the corners remained well cloaked in shadow, as were the recesses of his soul.
     The man removed his overcoat.  Kurtweil threw it over the back of a chair and gave him an ashen look when his empty hands fell to his sides.
     "You understand my dilemma," Kurtweil said.
     "Yes," said the man quietly.

     They seated themselves and for a long time neither spoke.
     "So what must I do?" Kurtweil said.
     "You must learn the secret of dreams."
     "What do you mean?”
     "Dreaming is not a passive encounter with our unconscious, as Freud taught. Jung was more astute. Yet even Jung did not go far enough. I tell you truthfully, the power of the dream exceeds all known powers, and when you have mastered it, you can save the world."
     "I don't understand."
     "You are a great mind.  Have you no imagination? You wish to communicate a great truth to another great mind. You are trapped by circumstance, by geography, by space and time. How is it possible to escape such bounds?"
     "If I knew that, I would be..." He broke off.
     "You would be... what?"
     "Or the devil."
     "Think again," the man said.
     Kurtweil stood up and walked to the window.  He saw his face reflected in the glass, illumined as if a mask, his eyes dark hollows.  When he turned again, he was alone.  The man had disappeared.
     From his pocket he pulled a hanky and dabbed at his forehead.  He was sweating profusely and felt a need to take in the night air.  Had it been a hallucination? He had not been sleeping well. He had not been sleeping at all, it seemed. 
     He had met Carl Jung once. They stood together on a balcony at a party in Geneva fifteen years before. "Consciousness is a portal," Jung had said that night. "When we pass through this portal to the other side, where do we go? When we return, where have we been?" Kurtweil, a practical man, was irritated by Jung at the time. But now, he wondered.


     During a press conference in 1947 when he was appointed head of the Atomic Energy Commission, J. Robert Oppenheimer was asked how he solved the problem of predetonation and discovered the secret of the bomb. “If I told you the truth you would laugh, so I will only say that it came to me in a dream.”

     “What kind of dream, sir? Did you see blueprints or something like that?” 

     Oppenheimer hesitated a moment, then replied, “Actually, it was someone else’s dream.” This cryptic reply is the only known public reference to Dr. Kurtweil’s second great achievement.


~ ~ ~


Author’s Note: I learned the above story in 1994 while teaching a class for senior citizens at University of MN, Duluth.  That spring I’d written a series of articles on ethical issues in terminal health care and as a result had been invited to teach for an afternoon on the pros and cons of assisted suicide.  One of the members of the class was a large man whose name now escapes me (I have it written in my notes somewhere, but for the sake of this story I will call him Mr. Jackson) who as a young scientist had been a member of the Manhattan Project.  Being a writer I am always interested in a good story.  I asked if he had plans for dinner.


Mr. Jackson told me that during the course of the project Oppenheimer had become a changed man.  “It happened almost suddenly. Most of us attributed it to the fact that we had had a breakthrough and the Bomb was going to become a reality.” 


“I had worked closely with Robert,” Jackson continued, “and sensed it to be something more, so we went out one night and I confronted him.  He made me swear oaths of silence, then stated coldly that if the truth were made public he would be considered a lunatic and removed from the project. ‘I could be ruined,’ he said. As we all know the Project was a success and Oppenheimer became a national hero.  I’ve often wondered who else knew the source of his inspiration, or whether I was the only one.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        EN, 3-25-06



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