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  • This article was downloaded by: [Ume University Library]On: 22 November 2014, At: 04:16Publisher: Taylor & FrancisInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office:Mortimer House, 37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Contemporary PhysicsPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscriptioninformation:

    Science as social historyN. M. ClarkePublished online: 08 Nov 2010.

    To cite this article: N. M. Clarke (2001) Science as social history, Contemporary Physics, 42:2, 125-127, DOI:10.1080/00107510010021822

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  • Essay review

    Science as social history

    N. M. CLARKE

    A review of Heavy Water and the Wartime Race for Nuclear

    Energy. By P. F. DAHL. (Institute of Physics Publishing ,

    1999.) Pp. xvi+ 400. 35.00, $60.00 (hbk). ISBN 0 7503

    0633 5. Scope: historical survey. Level: non-specialist .

    At the end of every century, and especially at the end of the

    millennium, the historians sharpen their pencils (or word

    processors) in order to set the previous hundred years in a

    context appropriate to their personal view of the develop-

    ment of their country, continent or world over those years.

    In many cases, there are de ning historical incidents or

    inventions which can characterize a century, or at least

    some part of it. For my life, which spans just more than the

    last 50 years of the century, the two most signi cant

    in uences were nuclear weapons and computers. This is of

    course, a western, northern hemisphere viewpoint which

    may be unrecognizable to someone who grew up during the

    1960s in say, southern Africa or parts of Oceania. Those,

    like me, who lived through the Cuban missile crisis, will

    remember the almost palpable sense that we were on the

    edge of oblivion; and then the subsequent relief that nuclear

    weapons somehow held the fragile peace for more than 40

    years, until the communication revolution, red by

    advances in computer technology, broke down many of

    the barriers between nations. (A former colleague insisted

    that the cold war could have been ended by dropping free

    computers into those countries behind the Iron Curtain .) I

    am sure that many others share a similar view of these

    in uences on their lives, so that the social history of the

    western world can be seen to have been shaped and driven

    by certain advances in science and technology. So, I became

    a nuclear physicist, and nd myself reviewing Per Dahl s


    In Dahl s introduction he oers that his book is `not a

    book about science, but a social history of science and he

    encapsulates through his story of heavy water, the

    discoveries leading to nuclear power and ssion bombs,

    in which this elusive substance played a role, believed to be

    of critical importance at the time, but which was to prove

    inconsequentia l in the long term future of nuclear weapons

    and for nuclear power (with the exception of the CANDU

    reactors in Canada). The social and political fallout which

    accompanied these discoveries for the remainder of the

    century are outside the scope of this book (and my review),

    but are well documented elesewhere.

    Dahl begins his story, appropriately , at Oslos Fornebu

    airport in March 1940 where, with the help of Frank Foley

    of MI6, two scientists managed to smuggle out thirteen

    canisters of heavy water from under the noses of German

    agents, just before the fall of Norway. The two physicists

    were the Austrian, Hans Von Halban and a wandering

    Russian, Lew Kowarski, both co-workers with Frederic

    Joliot-Curie in Paris. The adventures of the canisters and of

    Halban and Kowarski (and Foley), seem to form a singular

    thread through the amazing story that Dahl unfolds; it is a

    story of intrigue, espionage and adventure which many

    writers of spy novels could not outdo. This thread, a small

    part of the story, deserves a more popular presentation

    than Dahl can really present in this book, but without the

    services of Hollywood, or perhaps of a playwright like

    Michael Frayn (Copenghagen), it is unlikely to see the light

    of day entitled as, say, Broompark the name of the

    Scottish coal steamship which nally sneaked out of

    Bordeaux, evading the German U-boats, to deliver 26

    canisters of heavy water, eventually, to Windsor Castle by

    way of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Back in Paris, Joliot-

    Curie managed to convince the occupying German

    authorities that the Broompark had been sunk.

    In the rst few chapters, Dahl introduces us, in a fairly

    gentle way, to the background history of the early work on

    radioactivity, with research activities dominated by scien-

    tists in England, France and Germany. The identity of the

    mysterious radiation that was the neutron was missed,

    narrowly, by Bothe in Berlin and Joliot-Curie in Paris, but

    nally veri ed by Chadwick in Cambridge, and triggered

    research projects all over Europe. For Frederic and Irene

    Joliot-Curie, this must have been a galling disappointment ,Dr N. M. Clarke is at the School of Physics and Astronomy, University ofBirmingham, Birmingham, UK.

    Contemporary Physics, 2001, volume 42, number 2, pages 125 127

    Contemporary Physics ISSN 0010-7514 print/ISSN 1366-5812 online 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd 10.1080/0010751001002182 2




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  • but they made up for it by discovering the rst example of

    arti cial radioactivity in Phosphorous-30, and later won a

    Nobel prize. We also meet `a comedy of errors which led to

    the discovery of the heavy isotope of hydrogen, eventually

    called `deuterium by Urey who also settled on `deuteron

    for the nucleus, overturning, thankfully , the other candi-

    date names of `dygen and `pycnogen ! Here too, we meet a

    gure who dominates the story of heavy water until his

    tragic death from a bullet through the head in the last few

    pages of this book and within a few weeks of the armistice.

    He was Leif Tronstad, a Norwegian electro-chemist who

    became a consultant to Norsk-Hydro. This Norwegian

    company ran the hydroelectric plants which generated

    electricity, made hydrogen by electrolysis, and, under

    Tronstads guidance, were adapted to produce water

    enriched in deuterium. Next, we follow the scientists of

    various countries, seeking the explanation of the observa-

    tion by Hahn and Strassman that the element barium was

    mysteriously produced in reactions of neutrons with

    uranium. This was correctly interpreted by Otto Frisch

    and Lise Meitner as the splitting, or ssion, of the nucleus

    of uranium.

    This is the critical point in the story; the genie of nuclear

    ssion was out of the bottle, and within months the

    concepts of a chain reaction leading to a power-producing

    pile or even to a bomb were well established. The race was

    on, and Per Dahl whirls us though the following intrigue

    connected with heavy water, which was the moderator of

    choice for the experiments in chain reactions. Here we see,

    not only science as social history its demands and

    priorities altering or even driving the decisions of govern-

    ments and the military authorities, but scientists playing

    out their own precarious roles and lives against the

    patchwork of others lives across the face of Europe. In

    particular , Dahl gives us lavish detail about the attempts to

    disrupt and destroy the heavy water production at the

    famous Vemork hydro plant in Rjukan, Norway, and deals

    well with some of the arguments which have arisen since

    those times about the real necessity (or otherwise) of these

    attempts, given that it was known at the time that the

    German eorts in achieving a chain reaction had not

    progressed much further than Joliot had achieved before

    the occupation. Following the disasterous `Freshman raid

    on Vemork, Leif Tronstad led a band of Norwegian

    saboteurs with local knowledge, and eectively destroyed

    the heavy water installation in the Vemork plant. But not

    for long; repairs were carried out, and German demand for

    the heavy water increased as they were forced to ee Berlin

    in the face of mounting air raids. Following the repairs, an

    Allied air raid of 140 ying Fortresses dropped over 700,

    500-pound bombs on the Norsk Hydro plant, (and by

    mistake, another 118 bombs on the nitrate plant at Rjukan)

    with a total loss of 21 lives. This led to a plan to dismantle

    the heavy water plant at Vemork and ship some 600

    kilograms of enriched water in 49 drums to Germany.

    Tronstads group, led by Knut Haukelid (Skis against the

    atom) were able to sabotage this eort on the rst stage of

    its journey by blowing up the ferry Hydro; 18 lives were lost

    as the ship, with three rail cars, and all but four of the

    heavy water drums sank 400m deep into the fjord. These

    losses of life caused great concern amongst the Norwegian

    authorities exiled in England, and has led to much criticism

    of Allied motives and actions since that time. However,

    Dahl points out that the hydroelectric plants were still of

    strategic importance, even without the heavy water plant,

    because one of their principal functions was the production

    of hydrogen, and ammonia for fertiliser which were

    desperately short in Germany, where fuel stocks were

    badly depleted. Later in the book, almost as an aside, he

    mentions also that the ammonia was a major feedstock for

    the explosive industries. These reasons alone do not, of

    course, justify the loss of life, but in the great scheme of the

    world war, they give a lie to the accusations that the raids

    on Vemork were pointless and achieved nothing, and

    perhaps give a little comfort to the families of the brave

    Norwegians who gave so much.

    As a scientist, I appreciated Dahls eorts to give a

    balanced view of the scientists involved in the history of the

    chain reaction. He rightly credits the quality of the French

    eorts under Joliot-Curie, whilst the eorts of the British

    were more modest. He also chronicles the incredible

    struggles of the German team, who suered a uranium

    re, frequent moves to avoid air raids, and constant

    political and military interference; in their nal attempt at a

    chain reacting pile, Heisenberg and his colleagues ended up

    in a cave in Haigerloch in 1945 where they were nally

    tracked down by the advancing Allied forces. The German

    scientists were transferred to England, and the story of their

    debrie ng is told in the transcripts of the Farm Hall

    recordings. Dahl also gives brief details of the scienti c

    eorts in Russia and Japan. The irony of the story is that

    the chain reaction was achieved, long before most incidents

    in this book, by the diaspora of European scientists in the

    United States who, under Fermi s leadership, achieved the

    rst chain reaction with a graphite pile in 1942. For

    28minutes it had an output of one-half of a watt; this was

    the feeble beginning of chain reactions in nuclear ssion,

    which eventually became the greatest power in the world, in

    more senses than one. The rest, as they say, is history, and

    as Michael Faraday said of electricity `One day, Mr

    Gladstone, you will tax it ; and, of course, they did!

    I enjoyed Per Dahl s book immensely; it has some

    passages which may prove tough going for non-specialists ,

    but its structure, with references to detailed notes in the

    appendices, leaves the reader with a clear path through the

    story, but with plenty of detail in the notes should one wish

    to browse. Moreover, it moves at a good pace, and

    addresses many aspects of the story of heavy water that

    Essay review126




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  • have been somewhat neglected. I marvelled at its detail, but

    was made somewhat conscious of my age to nd in these

    pages the names of people I had met, or worked with, or

    had formerly occupied my o ce (Mark Oliphant, Helene

    Joliot and Alan Nunn-May respectively). So, do we need

    more science as social history? We do indeed, and plenty of

    it, to educate and certainly to entertain the younger

    generations, so that they understand that science and

    technology is not just about `goodies like playstations ,

    mobile telephones and the internet, or `baddies like ssion

    bombs, global warming or genetically modi ed crops, but a

    big, mixed bag of attributes which may change our lives for

    ever. The original inventors pursued their ideas, quite often

    without considering the future eect of their discoveries,

    because they could not possibly know what their in uence

    might be, but historians of science can, and should, place

    these inventions and their repurcussions within social

    histories so that future generations can make up their

    own minds. However, I believe that the entertainment

    factor in science as social history must be writ large; there

    are as many amusing, charismatic, brave people within the

    scienti c community as in the general population. Science

    can, and does, make a good story, and it is peopled by real

    characters whose lives are as interesting, dramatic or tragic

    as any ction; we just need authors who will write about it

    and remind the audience that the technological advances in

    their lives do not come free of personal, political or

    emotional hardship; nor are new inventions free of future

    moral or social dilemmas. There are issues behind all

    science, even if it is only the `o button on the TV control

    pad. In Dahl s book we meet real people struggling in the

    chaos of real lives during a dangerous and turbulent period

    in the 20th century; it tells a story which has more drama

    than any TV soap opera, but curiously, has very few

    villains. Science as social history? Yes please; I await the

    next episode!

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