(CN) – A chance encounter in 2013 between a professor and a small cube of uranium kickstarted a new look into the scientific goals of World War II-era Germany and the progress of Hitler’s nuclear program.
Timothy Koeth, an associate research professor at the University of Maryland, received a simple birthday gift: a small, surprisingly heavy cube. With the help of an attached note, he identified the gift as five pounds of natural uranium used by Nazi Germany to build a nuclear reactor.
Fascinated by the story of the cube and how it traveled through the world only to end up in his grasp, he began, along with doctoral candidate Miriam Hiebert, a deep dive into Germany’s effort to construct a functional nuclear reactor. At the heart of the story they found a set of 664 uranium cubes, which played a pivotal role in the failure of the German nuclear program.
They published their findings Wednesday in the journal Physics Today.
German scientists tried to build the reactor in an abandoned cave in Haigerloch, a remote town far from the raging war. The team of German scientists and engineers included renowned physicist Werner Heisenberg, and the all worked to fulfill Hitler’s wish to bring Germany into the nuclear age.
The effort, however, ended in failure. Koeth and Hiebert learned the 664 cubes were not enough for the reactor to reach criticality, and the program spent too many years under fractured leadership to make any meaningful progress.
Germany had access to an additional 400 cubes of uranium spread throughout the country that were never used in the project. Such disorganization, Koeth and Hiebert conclude, meant that a nuclear-powered Nazi Germany was possible but still many years away at the time of its defeat by the Allied forces.
While most of the cubes were recovered by the Allied forces, questions about how many cubes remain unaccounted for, such as the one Koeth received as a birthday present, persist. Koeth and Hiebert, along with an intrigued community, continue to wonder how many of these cubes quietly litter basements and attics around the world.
Koeth and Hiebert did not respond to a request for comment by press time.