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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 13:20 EDT

von Weizsäcker, Carl Friedrich Freiherr

Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker (June 28, 1912 ““ 28 April 2007) was German physicist and philosopher. He was the longest-living member of Werner Heisenberg’s research team which investigated nuclear studies in Germany during World War II. Some argue whether he and the team willingly engaged in the development of a nuclear bomb for Germany, or if its failure was intentional because they did not want the Nazi regime to have nuclear weapons.

Weizäcker was born in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, but raised in Stuttgart, Basel, and Copenhagen. Born into a long line of prominent German figures, his father was diplomat Ernst von Weizäcker, the older brother of the former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, father of the physicist and environmental researcher Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker and father-in-law of the former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches Konrad Raiser. He studied physics, mathematics and astronomy in Berlin, Göttingen and Leipzig under the direction of Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Friedrich Hund supervised him on the work of his doctoral thesis.

He was particularly interested in the binding energy of atomic nuclei as well as the nuclear processes in stars, as a young researcher. He jointly founded a formula with Hans Bethe, called the Bethe-Weizäcker formula, which calculated nuclear processing in stars, as well as the cyclic process of fusion in stars.

Weizäcker participated in efforts to build an atomic bomb on the German Nuclear Energy Project during World War II. As a direct subject of Heisenberg, he was present on September 17, 1939 to attend a decisive meeting at the Army Ordnance headquarters in Berlin. The German atomic weapons initiative was launched at this meeting. He co-authored a report to the Army on the likelihood of “energy production” from refined uranium and also the possibility of a new idea of substituting plutonium for the same purpose. In December 1944, American capture at his Strasbourg laboratory interrupted his development. His papers were passed into Western Allied hands and it was discovered that the Germans were still not close to developing a nuclear weapon.

U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt received warning as early as August 1939 from Albert Einstein informing “… the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.”

There has been a wide view of historians suggesting that Heisenberg’s team did not succeed in the development of the nuclear weapon purposely because they did not want Nazi regime to have this power. This view was based on post-war interviews with Heisenberg and Weizäcker, and was presented in a book by Robert Jungk entitled Brighter than a Thousand Suns in 1957. Weizäcker frankly admitted that his purposes were for personal scientific ambition.

The reality of this question was not known until 1993 when the 1945 recorded transcripts of conversation between the Heisenberg team called “The Farm Hall Transcripts” were found. What was revealed was that Weizäcker took the lead in convincing the other scientists to accept a claim that they had never wanted to develop a German nuclear weapon. This untrue story was called among themselves “die Lesart” (the Version). This was the version presented to Jungk as the basis for his book.

In 1946, Weizäcker was permitted to return to Germany where he assumed role as director of a department for theoretical physics in the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Göttingen. He won the Max Plank Medal in 1957. He later became professor of philosophy at the University of Hamburg from 1957 to 1969. He devised a world internal policy in 1970. He directed the “Max Planck Institute for the Research of Living Conditions in the Modern World” located in Starnberg from 1970 to 1980. He researched and published works on the danger of nuclear war and the outcomes of environmental destruction. Indian philosopher, Pandit Gopi Krishna, co-founded a research foundation with Weizäcker that was instituted “for western sciences and eastern wisdom.” In 1980 he retired and became a Christian pacifist. He did, however, continue to study the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics and perfect its conceptual definition.

After his experiencing Nazi practices and his personal behavior in the Nazi era, Weizäcker became especially interested in questions on ethics and responsibility. He participated, along with 17 other prominent German physicists, in 1957 protests on whether the Bundeswehr should be armed with tactical nuclear weapons. He further advocated for definitive resignation of all types of nuclear weapon in West Germany.

In support of his research in his report during the Nazi era, Weizäcker expanded on his pioneered theory of ur-alternatives in his 1971 book “Einheit der Natur” and later developed that into an even more extensive account in his 1992 book “Zeit und Wissen.” The theory axiomatically constructs quantum physics from distinguishing between empirically observable, binary alternatives. He utilized this theory to obtain the 3-dimensionality of space and to approximate the entropy of a proton falling into a black hole. His theory exemplifies a significant contribution to digital physics.

The peace award of the German booksellers was awarded to Weizäcker in 1963. He won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1989. He also was given the Order Pour le Mérite.

Weizäcker died in Söcking near Starnberg in 2007. Upon his death, still a topic of controversy was the question on whether he and the other members of the team to build a nuclear weapon for Nazi Germany accepted their responsibility in that attempt.

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