NHK TV Programme on Atomic Espionage

March 11, 2015


Last month I was approached by Japanese television company NHK for help in developing a programme they’re planning to broadcast later this year, as part of a series of events to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago.

I’m not familiar with all the details, but I got the sense that the programme will focus on the role of atomic spies during the war. I’ll post more details if and when I get them.

NHK asked for help with two segments of the programme, one dealing with Heisenberg’s lecture on S-matrix theory which he delivered to colleagues at the ETH in Zurich in December 1944 and the second relating to Ted Hall’s first act of espionage in October 1944, when he passed atomic secrets to Sergei Kurnakov, a Soviet journalist who wrote for the Communist Daily Worker and a low-level NKVD agent.

Sitting in the audience at Heisenberg’s lecture was Moe Berg, a former baseball star turned agent of the OSS (the forerunner to the CIA). Some years later Berg related sketchy details of his mission to an OSS colleague, Earl Brodie. ‘If anything Heisenberg said convinced him the Germans were close to a bomb,’ Brodie later explained, ‘then his job was to shoot him – right there in the auditorium. It would probably have cost Berg his life – there would have been no way to escape.’

NHK sought to reconstruct Heisenberg’s lecture, the tension building as Berg contemplates assassination and suicide. To create a realistic scene, they needed to fill the blackboard with equations and come up with a set of words (in English) for the actor playing Heisenberg to speak. Not surprisingly, they had no real idea what S-matrix theory is all about and so struggled to find the right words. I pointed them in the direction of a couple of Heisenberg’s research papers on S-matrix theory published in 1943 (in German) available online, and wrote a short script based on the description of this work in David Cassidy’s excellent biography Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg. I think all that the programme-makers needed was to give a reasonably realistic impression of what the lecture might have been like. Berg’s thinking at the time was captured in notes he made during the lecture.

Of course, Heisenberg’s lecture was purely academic. He made no references to any nuclear research project, which in any case was focused principally on building a nuclear reactor, not a bomb. When Berg later joined Heisenberg for the short walk to the hotel after dinner that evening, his gun stayed in his pocket.

The segment was filmed in Glasgow and apparently went well, the actor learning all the lines I had written.

For the segment involving Ted Hall, NHK simply wanted to show Hall passing a document to Kurnakov, with a close-up of the document giving the impression of atomic secrets being betrayed. The problem here is that this document either no longer exists or is buried deep in the SVD archives, and nobody knows what it contained. I suggested they pick a couple of pages from the Los Alamos Primer. This was prepared by Ed Condon from Robert Serber’s lecture in April 1942 which introduced the theoretical and practical challenges of building the atomic bomb to the group of scientists that was starting to assemble at Los Alamos. Hall ‘devoured’ the Los Alamos Primer on his arrival and it seems reasonable to suppose that he would have based his summary on this document, at least in part.

The Los Alamos Primer was declassified in 1992 and a copy is available online. The document is not big on detailed design drawings but it has several pages of equations and calculations. This should look reasonably authentic (provided the programme-makers removed all the ‘UNCLASSIFIED’ stamps).