Few examples of alternate history are more spine-quivering than the thought of a nuke-armed Nazi Germany during the heat of a world war. While the grim idea never came too close to reality, the possibility that it could have might not be quite as fanciful as historians sometimes like to imagine.
A cube of uranium, just smaller than a Rubik's cube, made its way into the hands of two researchers at the University of Maryland in the summer of 2013. Their tests suggested they were in possession of one of the 664 uranium cubes that were once in a failed Nazi nuclear reactor in a cave underneath the town of Haigerloch, Germany.
Reporting in the journal Physics Today, the duo of researchers set about tracking what happened to the hundreds of uranium cubes collected by German scientists for their nuclear experiments. Through this work, they managed to get some insight into why Hitler’s vision of creating the world’s first nuclear power remained a dream.
Scholars have long argued that Germany could never have created a nuclear weapon by the end of the war, simply because they did not have enough uranium to make their test reactor work. However, new sleuthing has revealed that at least 400 more cubes might have been located within Germany at the time. Although this still wouldn’t have been sufficient – they realistically needed yet another 664 more cubes – it does point to a major weakness of the Nazi nuclear effort: bitter rivalries and bad management.
"The German program was divided and competitive; whereas, under the leadership of General Leslie Groves, the American Manhattan Project was centralized and collaborative," study co-author Miriam Hiebert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, said in a statement.
"If the Germans had pooled their resources, rather than keeping them divided among separate, rival experiments, they may have been able to build a working nuclear reactor.”
However, lead author Timothy Koeth concedes: "Even if the 400 additional cubes had been brought to Haigerloch to use within that reactor experiment, the German scientists would have still needed more heavy water to make the reactor work."
The question remains, what was this particular uranium cube doing in Maryland, not Germany?
Ten other cubes have been identified around the country, each with a totally different story of how it arrived. After Nazi Germany was defeated, the US initiated Operation Paperclip, a secret program to bring over 1,600 German scientists, engineers, and technicians to work on projects for the US government. It’s likely that this migration had something to do with it. The research paper even speculates the cubes “found their way into the hands of one or more Manhattan Project officials as paperweight spoils of war.”
While it’s unlikely the full story will ever be known, the researchers are now on the hunt for the full set of cubes, which they argue could serve to remind humanity of “a lesson in scientific failure, albeit a failure worth celebrating.”
"We don't know how many were handed out or what happened to the rest, but there are likely more cubes hiding in basements and offices around the country," Hiebert explained, "and we'd like to find them!"