The mystery of the Nazi uranium cubes

It is one of the many enigmas left over from World War II. What is the mystery of the Nazi uranium cubes all about? It all started with the Nazis’ need to invent a bigger and bigger bomb. In fact, nuclear fission was discovered in 1938 in Berlin. As part of their plans, they created uranium cubes for various tests. But their fate is unknown until now. Where are they?

The mystery of the Nazi uranium cubes persists.
The mystery of the Nazi uranium cubes persists.

Where are they?

“It’s hard to know what happened to these cubes,” says Alex Wellerstein, a historian. About a dozen of them have been identified in the United States. That makes them a treasure trove for researchers.

One of the teams experimenting with the uranium cubes was led by physicist Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum mechanics and Nobel laureate in 1932.

Werner Heisenberg was a Nobel laureate in 1932. He and his colleagues experimented with 5 cm cubes. They attached 664 of these to hanging wires to immerse them in heavy water. They expected a chain reaction that did not occur.

In 1945, American troops made their way to Heisenberg’s laboratory. More than 600 cubes of uranium were confiscated and sent to the United States. They wanted to know how advanced the Germans were in nuclear technology. And also to prevent the cubes from falling into Soviet hands.

Today the whereabouts of the vast majority of the cubes are still unknown.

Several are believed to have been used in the development of U.S. nuclear weapons. According to Wellerstein, some people began giving the cubes away as souvenirs. Other scientists used them as analysis material. Still others fell into the black market.

This is Werner Heisenberg, who experimented with uranium cubes.
This is Werner Heisenberg, who experimented with uranium cubes.

Searching for cubes

In 2019, the magazine Physics Today managed to track down the location of 7 cubes. According to those who have them, they belonged to the Nazi nuclear experiments. Three of them are in Germany. Two others are in the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C. One more is at Harvard University. Of the seventh cube its provenance is not certain.

They have some historical and symbolic value. “But the cubes aren’t really very valuable. You can’t do anything with them,” Wellerstein says. They’re also not dangerous, since they generate very weak radiation. After you grab one of them, “you just wash your hands,” says the expert.

The mystery of the Nazi uranium cubes will not end to unravel. There was a lot of secrecy around it for a long time. The United States developed its nuclear program quickly. And largely out of fear that the Germans would get there before them.

Some see the cubes as the trigger for the dangerous era of nuclear weapons. That may well be so. Perhaps nuclear weapons, nuclear power, the Cold War, are related. All motivated by the effort that was generated from cubes.

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