“Nazis, Émigrés, and Abstract Mathematics,” Physics Today (feature article under review)
Abstract: This article reconstructs the scientific collaboration between Pascual Jordan and two Jewish colleagues, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann, during 1933. Over the course of that fateful year, the three drafted a now-famous article that introduced a new type of non-associative algebras later termed “Jordan algebras.” Yet their personal circumstances diverged dramatically: Jordan chose to join the Nazi Party and began openly propagandizing for its cause, while Wigner and Neumann made plans to permanently emigrate to the United States. This article examines how this seemingly paradoxical collaboration came to be.
“The Farm Hall Transcripts: The Smoking Gun That Wasn’t,” Berichte zur Wissenschaftsgeschichte/History of Science and Humanities (forthcoming in a special issue commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Farm Hall internment of German nuclear scientists in 1945–46)
Abstract: Over 75 years after their creation, the Farm Hall transcripts remain a tantalizing source from the dawn of the atomic age in 1945. Declassified in 1992, the transcripts document 10 prominent German nuclear physicists, including Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, and Otto Hahn, contemplating the Nazi defeat, their complicity in the German war machine, and—after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima—whether they truly intended to build a nuclear weapon for Hitler.
As a document of actual conversations, one might expect the transcripts to have been the proverbial smoking gun that determined once and for all whether German physicists intended to build a nuclear weapon for Adolf Hitler. Yet the Farm Hall transcripts have been used to support starkly divergent arguments. Some have used them to assert that the Germans would have willingly provided Hitler with a bomb if only they could; others view them as evidence of scientific resistance inside the Nazi regime. This article explores why the Farm Hall transcripts are not the smoking gun they appear to be.
Abstract: Using newly uncovered archival sources, this essay traces the meteoric rise and fall of the peculiar interdisciplinary German scientific journal Physis, founded by the physicist Pascual Jordan and the biologist Adolf Meyer-Abich in 1941. Launched when victory for Nazi Germany seemed certain, Physis was intended by Jordan and Meyer-Abich to be a premier international journal for all sciences suitable for the new “German-led Europe” forged by conquest. Yet the journal was simultaneously a vehicle for institutionalizing Jordan’s remarkably prescient vision of the future of the scientific enterprise in Hitler’s state—a vision nearly identical to what is now termed “big science,” yet suitably “Nazified” for wartime Germany. Behind the scenes, Physis was accompanied by a campaign of intrigue, through which Jordan and Meyer-Abich hoped to find a patron for the journal and big science among the various power centers of the Nazi state. These efforts failed, yet they nevertheless demonstrate that big science is not inherently democratic.