Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition showcasing the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born, Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of Vishniac’s work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is so copious it is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also being co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London.

It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications and newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family, Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which inspired a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments by attaching the camera to the microscope and, as a teenager, became both an avid amateur photographer and a student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with two cameras, a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life.

He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, experimental camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play, the eeriness of public spaces.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing careers in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among the many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had long existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards they also helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be émigrés in the practical agricultural and vocational skills they would need in their new lives in Palestine.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists, the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin.

His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of other charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthy West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years Vishniac travelled extensively in the region, documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just show the photos but also has display cases presenting the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to convey the sense of strong determined Jews building a better future.

In 1941 the SS ordered the inhabitants of the camp who hadn’t managed to flee to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and managed to take a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life. So many angles, so many lights to his career.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, then took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new American home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand Vishniac was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards.

In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit Vishniac’s work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch.

It was these exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews which established Vishniac’s lasting reputation as the chronicler of the now-lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’.

Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of the new life in America full of youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish diaspora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish émigrés including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These VIP shots helped to attract other dancers, actors, musicians and artists to his studio and provide a steady supply of work.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Alongside the studio work, he began a new series of shots made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage. Fascinating and evocative.

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as the distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies. Pitiful remnants.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or ‘photomicroscopy’.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room where you can watch a slide show of 90 blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of insect eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the actual microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Atomic by Jim Baggott (2009)

This is a brilliantly panoramic, thrilling and terrifying book.

The subtitle of this book is ‘The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49‘ and it delivers exactly what it says on the tin. At nearly 500 pages Atomic is a very thorough account of its subject – the race to develop a workable atomic bomb between the main warring nations of World War Two, America, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia –  with the additional assets of a 22-page timeline, a 20-page list of key characters, 18 pages of notes and sources and a 6-page bibliography.

A cast of thousands

The need for a list of key characters is an indication of one of the main learnings from the book: it took a lot of people to convert theoretical physics into battlefield nuclear weapons. Every aspect of it came from theories and speculations published in numerous journals, and then from experiments devised by scores of teams of scientists working around the industrialised world, publishing results, meeting at conferences or informally, comparing and discussing and debating and trying again.

Having just read The Perfect Theory by Pedro Ferreira, a ‘biography’ of the theory of relativity, I had gotten used to the enormous number of teams and groups and institutes and university faculties involved in science – or this area of science – each containing numerous individual scientists, who collaborated and competed to devise, work through and test new theories relating to Einstein’s famous theory.

Baggott’s tale gives the same sense of a cast of hundreds of scientists – it feels like we are introduced to two or three new characters on every page, which can make it quite difficult to keep up. But whereas progress on the theory of relativity took place at a leisurely pace over the past 100 years, the opposite is true of the development of The Bomb.

This was kick-started when a research paper showing that nuclear fission of uranium might be possible was published in 1939, just as the world was on the brink of war (hence the start date for this book). From that point the story progresses at an increasing pace, dominated by a Great Fear – fear that the Nazis would develop The Bomb first and use it without any scruples to devastate Europe.

The first three parts of the book follow the way the two warring parties – the Allies and the Nazis – assembled their teams from civilian physicists, mathematicians and chemists at various institutions, bringing them together into teams which were assembled and worked with increasing franticness, as the Second World War became deeper and darker.

If the you thought the blizzard of names of theoretical and experimental physicists, mathematicians, chemists and so on in the first part was a bit confusing, this is as nothing compared to the tsunami of names of Army administrators, security chiefs, civil servants, bureaucrats and politicians who are roped in to create and administer the facilities which were established to research and build, first a nuclear reactor, then a nuclear bomb.

Baggott unfolds the story with a kind of unflinching factual pace which is extremely gripping. Each chapter is divided into sections, often only a page long, which explain contemporaneous events at research bases in Chicago, out in the desert at Los Alamos, in Britain, in German research centres, and among Stalin’s harassed scientific community. Each one of these narratives is fascinating, but intercutting them like this creates an almost filming effect of cutting from one exciting scene to another. Baggott’s prose is spare and effective, almost like good thriller writing.

The nuclear spies

And indeed the book strays into actual thriller territory because interwoven with the gripping accounts of the British, Russian, German and American scientists, and their respective military and political masters, is the story of the nuclear spies. I read Paul Simpson’s A Brief History of The Spy a few months ago and it gives good accounts of the activities of Soviet spies Klaus Fuchs, David Greengrass, Theodore Hall, as well as the Rosenbergs. But the story of their spying and the huge amounts of top secret information they handed over to the Russians is so much more intense and exciting when it is situated in the broader story of the nail-biting scientific, chemical, logistical and political races to build The Bomb.

German failure

As everyone knows, the Nazis were not able to construct a functioning bomb before they were militarily defeated in May 1945. But it wasn’t for want of trying, and the main impression from the book was the sense of vicarious horror from the thought of what they’d done if they had made a breakthrough in the final desperate months of spring 1945. London wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be here.

Baggott’s account of the German bomb is fascinating in numerous ways. Basically, once the leadership were told it wouldn’t be ready in the next few years, they didn’t make it a priority. Baggott follows the end of the war with a chapter on hos most of the German nuclear scientists were flown to England and interned in a farm outside Cambridge which was bugged. Their conversations were recorded in which they were at first smugly confident that they were being detained because they were so far in advance of the Allies. Thus they were all shocked when they heard the Allies had dropped an atom bomb on Japan in August 1945. At which point they began to develop a new line, one much promoted by German historians since, which is that they could have developed a bomb if they’d wanted to, but had morals and principles and so did all they could to undermine, stall and sabotage the Nazi attempt to build an A bomb.

They were in fact ‘good Germans’ who always hated the Nazis. Baggott treats this claim with the contempt it deserves.

Summary of the science

The neutron was discovered in 1932, giving a clearer picture of what atoms are made of i.e. a nucleus with at least one proton (with a positive electric charge) balancing at least one electron (with a negative charge) in orbit around it. Heavier elements have more than one neutron and electron (always the same number) as well as an increasing number of neutrons which give weight but have no electric charge. Hence the periodic table lists the elements in order of heaviness, starting with hydrogen with one proton and going all the way to organesson, with its 118 protons. Ernest Lawrence in California invented the cyclotron, a device for smashing sub-atomic particles into nuclei to see what happened. In 1934 Enrico Fermi’s team in Italy set out to bombard the nuclei of every known element with neutrons, starting with hydrogen (1) and going through the entire periodic table.

The assumption was that, by bombarding elements with neutrons they would dislodge one or two protons in each nucleus and ‘shift’ the element down the periodic table by one or two places. When the team came to bombard one of the heaviest elements, uranium, they were amazed to discover that the process seemed to produce barium, about half the weight of uranium. The bombardment process seemed to blast uranium nuclei in half. Physics theory, influenced by Einstein, suggested that a) this breakdown would result in the release of energy b) some of the neutrons within the uranium nucleus would not be required by the barium atoms and would themselves shoot out to hit other uranium nuclei, and so on.

  • The process would create a chain reaction.
  • Although the collapse of each individual atom would release a minuscule amount of energy, the number of atoms in such a dense element suggested a theoretically amazing release of energy. If every nucleus of uranium in a 1 kilogram lump was split in half, it would release the same energy as 22,000 tons of TNT explosive.

Otto Frisch, an Austrian Jewish physicist who had fled to Niels Bohr’s lab in Copenhagen after the Nazis came to power, heard about all this from his long-time collaborator, and aunt, Lise Meitner, who was with the German team replicating Fermi’s results. He told Bohr about the discovery. Frisch named it nuclear fission.

In early 1939 papers were published in a German science journal and Nature, while Bohr himself travelled to a conference in America. In the spring of that year fission research groups sprang up around the scientific world. In America Bohr realised anomalies in the experimental results were caused by the fact that uranium comes in two isotopes, U-235 and U-238. The numbers derive from the total number of neutrons and protons in an atom: U-238 has 92 protons and 146 neutrons; U-235 has three fewer neutrons. Slowly evidence emerged that it is the U-235 which breaks down. But it is much rarer than the stable U-238 and difficult to extract and purify. In March 1939 a French team summarised the evidence for nuclear chain reactions in a paper in Nature, specifying the number of particles released by disintegrated nuclei.

All the physicists involved realised that the massive release of energy implied by the experiments could theoretically be used to create an explosive device vastly more powerful than anything then existing. And so did the press. Newspaper articles began appearing about a ‘superbomb’. In April the head of physics at the German Reich Research Council assembled a group devoted to fission research, named the Uranverein, calling for the ban of all uranium exports, and for it to be stockpiled. British MP Winston Churchill asked a friend, Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, to prepare a report on the feasibility of a fission bomb. Soviet scientists replicated the results of their western colleagues but didn’t bring the issue to the attention of the authorities – yet. Three Hungarian physicists who were exiles from the Nazis in America grasped the military importance of the discoveries. They approached Einstein and persuaded him to write a warning letter to President Roosevelt, which was written in August 1939 though not delivered to the president until October. Meanwhile the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September and war in Europe began. At this point the Nazis approached the leading theoretical physicist in Germany, Werner Heisenberg, and he agreed to head the Uranverein, leading German research into an atomic bomb until the end of the war.

And so the race to build the first atomic bomb began! The major challenges were to:

  • isolate enough of the unstable isotope U-235 to sustain a chain reaction
  • to kick start the chain reaction somehow, not with the elaborate apparatus available in a lab, but with something which could be packed inside a contain (a bomb) and then triggered somehow
  • a material which could ‘damp’ the process enough so that it could be controlled in experimental conditions

From the start there was debate over the damping material, with the two strongest contenders being graphite – but it turned out to be difficult to get graphite which was pure enough – or ‘heavy water’, water produced with a heavier isotope of hydrogen, deuterium. Only one chemical plant in all of Europe produced heavy water, a fertiliser factory in Norway. The Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 and a spin-off was the ability to commandeer regular supplies from this factory. That is why the factory, and its shipments of heavy water, were targeted for the commando raid and then air raids dramatised in the war movie, The Heroes of Telemark. (Baggott gives a thorough and gripping account of the true, more complex, more terrifying story of the raids.)

Learnings

I never realised that:

  • In the end the Americans built the bomb because they were the only ones with enough resources. Although Hitler and Stalin were briefed about the potential, their scientists told them it would be three or four years before a workable bomb could be made and they both had more pressing concerns. The British had the know-how but not the money or resources. There is a kind of historical inevitability to America being the first to build a bomb.
  • But I never realised there were quite so many communist sympathisers in American society and that so many of them slipped across the line into passing information and/or secrets to the Soviets. The Manhattan Project was riddled with Soviet spies.
  • And I never knew that J. Robert Oppenheimer, the man put in charge of the facilities at Los Alamos and therefore widely known as the ‘father’ of the atom bomb, was himself was such a dubious character, from the security point of view. Well-known for his left-wing sympathies, attending meetings and donating money to crypto-communist causes, he was good friends with communist party members and was approached at least once by Soviet agents to pass on information about the bomb project. No wonder elements in the Army and the FBI wanted him banned from the very project which he was in fact running.

Hiroshima

The first three parts of the book follow in considerable detail the story from the crucial discoveries on the eve of the war, and then interweaves developments in Britain, America and the USSR up until the detonation of the two A-bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9, 1945.

  • I was shocked all over again to read the idea that, on the eve of the first so-called Trinity test, the scientists weren’t completely confident that the chain reaction might not spread to the nitrogen in the atmosphere and set the air on fire.
  • I was dazzled by the casual way military planners came up with a short list of cities to hit with the bombs. The historic and (by all accounts) picturesque city of Kyoto was on the list but it was decided it would be a cultural crime to incinerate it. Also US Secretary of War Henry Stimson had gone there on his honeymoon, so it was removed from the list. Thus, in this new age, were the fates, the lives and agonising deaths, of hundreds of thousands of civilians decided.
  • I never knew they only did one test – the Trinity test – before Hiroshima. So little preparation and knowledge.

The justification for the use of the bomb has caused argument from that day to this. Some have argued that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering, though the evidence presented in Baggott’s account militates against this interpretation. My own view is based on two axioms: 1. the limits of human reason 2. a moral theory of complementarity.

Limits of reason When I was a young man I was very influenced by the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Life is absurd and the absurdity is caused by the ludicrous mismatch between human claims and hopes of Reason and Justice and Freedom and all these other high-sounding words – and the chaotic shambles which people have made of the world, starting with the inability of most people to begin to live their own lives according to Reason and Logic.

People smoke too much, drink too much, eat too much, marry the wrong person, drive cars too fast, take the wrong jobs, make the wrong decisions, jump off bridges, declare war. We in the UK have just voted for Brexit and Donald Trump is about to become US President. Rational? The bigger picture is that we are destroying the earth through our pollution and wastefulness, and global warming may end up destroying our current civilisation.

Given all these obvious facts about human beings, I don’t see how anyone can accuse us of being rational and logical.

But in part this is because we evolved to live in small packs or groups or tribes, and to deal with fairly simple situations in small groups. Ever since the Neolithic revolution and the birth of agriculture led to stratified and much larger societies and set us on the path to ‘civilisation’, we have increasingly found ourselves in complex situations where there is no one obviously ‘correct’ choice or path; where the notion of a binary choice between Good and Evil breaks down. Most of the decisions I’ve taken personally and professionally aren’t covered by so-called ‘morality’ or ‘moral philosophy’, they present themselves – and I make the decisions – based purely on practical outcomes.

Complementarity Early in his account Baggott explains Niels Bohr’s insight into quantum physics, the way of ‘seeing’ fundamental particles which changed the way educated people think about ‘reality’ and won him a Nobel Prize.

In the 1920s it became clear that electrons, one of the handful of sub-atomic particles, behave like waves and like particles at the same time. In Newton’s world a thing is a thing, self-identical and consistent. In quantum physics this fixed attitude has to be abandoned because ‘reality’ just doesn’t seem to be like that. Eventually, the researchers arrived a notion of complementarity i.e. that we just have to accept that electrons could be particles and waves at the same time depending on how you chose to measure them. (I understand other elements of quantum theory also prove that particles can be in two places at the same time). Conceivably, there are other ways of measuring them which we don’t know about yet. Possibly the incompatible behaviour can be reconciled at some ‘deeper’ level of theory and understanding but, despite nearly a century of trying, nobody has come up with a grand unifying theory which does that.

Meanwhile we have to work with reality in contradictory bits and fragments, according to different theories which fit, or seem to fit, to explain, the particular phenomena under investigation: Newtonian mechanics for most ordinary scale phenomena; Einstein’s relativity at the extremes of scale, black holes and gravity where Newton’s theory breaks down; and quantum theory to explain the perplexing nature of sub-atomic ‘reality’.

In the same way I’d like to suggest that everyday human morality is itself limited in its application. In extreme situations it frays and breaks. Common or garden morality suggests there is one ‘reality’ in which readily identifiable ideas of Good and Bad always and everywhere apply. But delve only a little deeper – consider the decisions you actually have to make, in your real life – and you quickly realise that there are many situations and decisions you have to make about situations which aren’t simple, where none of the alternatives are black and white, where you have to feel your way to a solution often based in gut instinct.

A major part of the problem may be that you are trying to reconcile not two points of view within one system, but two or more incompatible ways of looking at the world – just like the three worldviews of theoretical physics.

The Hiroshima decision

Thus – with one part of my mind I am appalled off the scale by the thought of a hideous, searing, radioactive death appearing in the middle of your city for no reason without any warning, vaporising half the population and burning the other half to shreds, men, women and little children, the old and babies, all indiscriminately evaporated or burned alive. I am at one with John Hersey’s terrifying account, I am with CND, I am against this anti-human abomination.

But with another part of the calculating predatory brain I can assess the arguments which President Truman had to weigh up. Using the A-bomb would:

  1. End a war which had dragged on too long.
  2. Save scores of thousands of American lives, an argument bolstered as evidence mounted that the Japanese were mobilising for a fanatical defence to the death of their home islands. I didn’;t know that the invasion of the southern island of Japan was scheduled for December 1945 and the invasion of the main island and advance on Tokyo was provisionally set to start in march 1946. Given that it took the Allies a year to advance from Normandy to Berlin, this suggests a scenario where the war could have dragged on well into 1947, with the awesome destruction of the entire Japanese infrastructure through firebombing and house to house fighting as well, of course, of vast casualties, Japanese and American.
  3. As the US commander of strategic air operations against Japan, General Curtis LeMay pointed out, America had been waging a devastating campaign of firebombing against Japanese cities for months. According to one calculation some two-and-a-half million Japanese had been killed in these air attacks to date. He couldn’t see why people got so upset about the atom bombs.

Again, I was amazed at the intransigence of the Japanese military. Baggott reports the cabinet meetings attended by the Japanese Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the heads of the Army and Navy, where the latter refused to surrender even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. In fact, when the Emperor finally overruled his generals and issued an order to surrender, the generals promptly launched a military coup and tried to confiscate the Emperor’s recorded message ordering the surrender before it could be broadcast. An indication of the fanaticism American troops would have faced if a traditional invasion had gone ahead.

The Cold War

And the other reason for using the bombs was to prepare for after the war, specifically to tell the Soviet Union who was boss. Roosevelt had asked Stalin to join the war on Japan and this he did in August, making a request to invade the north island (the Russians being notoriously less concerned about their own troop losses than the Allies). the book is fascinating on how Stalin ordered an invasion then three days later backed off, leaving all Japan to America. But this kind of brinkmanship and uneasiness which had appeared at Yalta became more and more the dominant issue of world politics once the war was won, and once the USSR began to put in place mini-me repressive communist regimes across Eastern Europe.

Baggott follows the story through the Berlin Airlift of 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War (June 1950), while he describes the ‘second physics war’ i.e. the Russian push to build an atomic reactor and then a bomb to rival America’s. In this the Russians were hugely helped by the Allied spies who, ironically, now Soviet brutality was a bit more obvious to the world, began to have second thoughts. In fact Klaus Fuchs, the most important conduit of atomic secrets to the Russians, eventually confessed his role.

Baggott’s account in fact goes up to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 and it is so grippingly, thrillingly written I wished it had gone right up to the fall of the Soviet Union. Maybe he’ll write a sequel which covers the Cold War. Then again, most of the scientific innovation had been achieved and the basic principles established; now it was a question of engineering, of improving designs and outcomes. Of building bigger and better bombs and more and more of them.

The last section contains a running thread about the attempts by some of the scientists and politicians to prevent nuclear proliferation, and explains in detail why they came to nothing. The reason was the unavoidable new superpower rivalry between America and Russia, the geopolitical dynamic of mutually assured destruction which dominated the world for the next 45 years (until the fall of the USSR).

A new era in human history was inaugurated in which ‘traditional’ morality was drained of meaning. Or to put it another way (as I’ve suggested above) in which the traditional morality which just about makes sense in large complex societies, reached its limits, frayed and broke.

The nuclear era exposed the limitations of not only human morality but of human reason itself, showing that incompatible systems of values could apply to the same phenomena, in which nuclear truths could be good and evil, vital and obscene, at the same time. An era in which all attempts at rational thought about weapons of mass destruction seemed to lead only to inescapable paradox and absurdity.


Credit

Atomic: The First War of Physics and the Secret History of the Atom Bomb 1939-49 by Jim Baggott was published in 2009 by Icon Books. All quotes and references are to the 2015 Icon Books paperback edition.

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