Heisenberg's Self-Stabilizing Reactor -- Item

Sun Feb 5, 2006

Probably one of the most fascinating books you’ll have a chance to read is Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall (ed. Jeremy Bernstein, Springer Verlag [2001]). From Heisenberg’s lecture to Charles Darwin:*

Such an apparatus stabilizes itself at a certain temperature. If one wants to fix the temperature of the reactor, this can be done by varying the amount of heavy water in it. If you have got enough uranium, more heavy water will raise the temperature.
As soon as we had the machine going, we could have made almost any intensity of radioactive isotopes. Because, just by taking enough energy out, you can raise the intensity as high as you want. (186)

Bernstein notes here that

This again is Heisenberg’s curious notion of reactor design–the idea that the reactor would stabilize itself at a certain temperature. The whole reason for having neutron-absorbing control rods is to shut the reactor off so it won’t run away. His belief that it would stabilize about control rods was a big mistake that could have had disastrous consequences. (186 n. 255)

I’m guessing that the physical details behind Heisenberg’s misapprehension here have been explicated or at least are reconstructable, though I remember reading somewhere that someone has argued that he was deliberately feeding the microphones a line of exculpatory bullshit (though how this follows, I have no idea). I wonder if there is a metaphysical imposition in this idea of self-stabilization, however.

Kenneth J. Harvey wrote to inform me of his satire in the TLS on the subject of Banville’s The Sea and recent audience controversies, a subject I find of considerable interest from a reader-response angle.

*Had this been that Charles Darwin and a seance, well, even more so.