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The spy who flunked it: Kurt Gödel’s forgotten part in the atom-bomb story

🌈 Abstract

The article narrates the story of how physicist Kurt Gödel was enlisted by Hans Thirring to secretly warn Albert Einstein about the risk of Nazi Germany developing an atomic bomb, and how Gödel ultimately failed to deliver the message.

🙋 Q&A

[01] The 2023 film Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project

1. What was the role of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer in the development of the atomic bomb?

  • Oppenheimer took over as director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico in 1943, leading the efforts to build the atomic bomb.

2. Who initiated the US efforts to build the atomic bomb before Oppenheimer?

  • The efforts were initiated by physicist Leo Szilard, who persuaded Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning about the risk of an atomic bomb in Adolf Hitler's hands.

3. What was the role of physicist Hans Thirring in trying to alert the US government about the atomic bomb threat?

  • Independently from Szilard, Thirring also came up with the idea to use Einstein to alert President Roosevelt about the risk of Hitler developing an atomic bomb.

[02] Kurt Gödel's involvement

1. What was Thirring's plan to use Gödel as a secret messenger to reach Einstein?

  • Thirring entrusted Gödel with the task of warning Einstein about Hitler's potential to develop an atomic bomb, as Gödel was planning to visit his mother and wife in Vienna and then return to Princeton where Einstein lived.

2. What difficulties and obstacles did Gödel face in trying to carry out Thirring's plan?

  • Gödel faced numerous bureaucratic hurdles and delays in obtaining the necessary documents and visas to leave Austria after it was annexed by Germany, including losing his lectureship and facing suspicion from the Nazis.

3. Despite the perilous journey, why did Gödel ultimately fail to deliver Thirring's warning message to Einstein?

  • When Gödel finally reached Einstein in Princeton, he confessed that he had only conveyed "greetings from Thirring" instead of the actual warning, claiming that he felt a nuclear chain reaction would only be possible in the distant future.

[03] The aftermath and legacy

1. How did Thirring view his role in the chain of events that led to the development of the atomic bomb?

  • Thirring, an inveterate pacifist, saw himself as a link in the causal chain that led to the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and was always uneasy about his imagined role in the bomb project.

2. What was the ultimate fate of Thirring's attempt to warn Einstein and the US government about the atomic bomb threat?

  • Thirring's message never reached its intended goal, as Gödel failed to deliver the warning to Einstein. Ironically, the spectre of Hitler's atomic bomb turned out to be unfounded.
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