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Serving the Reich – Philip Ball ****

Subtitled ‘the struggle for the soul of physics’, Philip Ball’s book takes us deep into the conflicted (and conflicting) stories of how German physicists responded to the growing power of the Nazis, their attitude to Jews, and their responses to the strictures of the Second World War.
In principle Ball does this by examining the lives and work of three physicists – the old guard Max Planck, a Dutch immigrant Peter Debye, and the seemingly amoral Werner Heisenberg – but in practice we see the impact of the regime and culture on many other physicists from intense supporters of the Nazis to those who did their best to oppose the regime.
Over the years these German scientists have been portrayed as everything from enthusiastic supporters of the Third Reich to secret saboteurs who did all they could to slow down the German development of nuclear weapons. Ball resolutely refuses to paint them either black or white, instead giving us every possible detail of shades of grey.
This is, without doubt, the fairest and most honest approach, given the lack of concrete information, but sometimes Ball’s concern to remain neutral and portray history as it was, rather than the usual ‘as the historian wants it to be’ can make the book a bit of a hard slog. Reading a Philip Ball book is a bit like attending a lecture by a scientist who absolutely knows his stuff, and is prepared to go off on lots of interesting side diversions, but nonetheless is very pernickety and precise, insisting on weighing everything up from every possible angle, so that just sometimes not only is the moral position of the scientists entirely grey, so is the storytelling.
This is a fascinating period in the history of physics, and it is indeed interesting to see how these well known (and less well known) characters played their part. Often the answer is ‘in a human, if rather detached, way – wanting as much as possible to get on with life, even if it meant ignoring some difficult truths.’ There is a feeling that somehow scientists should be more able to face reality – but in fact, in many ways they can be even more withdrawn than a typical citizen. Either way, with such ambiguous circumstances, combined with attempts after the war to modify the record to make things look less unpleasant, the result is inevitably a messy history that can never definitively tell us what happened. So don’t expect to come out of this with a clear picture – but do expect to know a lot more about the thinking of these key figures outside of their work in physics.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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