Monday, May 19, 2003

I was reading through the March/April 2000 issue of Books&Culture and was intrigued by these two stories, which I hope to follow up on with articles at some point:

Moe Berg was a third string catcher for the Boston Red Sox, on the same team as Ted Williams. He was sophisticated, especially for a professional athlete, having been educated at Princeton; he spoke several languages and was something of a ladies' man. During World War II he spied for the Allies. His life makes for quite an adventure, and several biographies of Berg (both for adult readers and for juveniles) have been published in the last five years alone, in addition to earlier ones. At the present time George Clooney is reportedly in conversation with Warner Brothers about adapting one of these biographies2 for the big screen. Clooney will play Berg.

One of the first biographies of Berg was Moe Berg: Athlete, Scholar, Spy, originally published in 1974, and rereleased in 1996.3 A copy of the original book, which contained a number of pictures of Berg, was sent to the great German physicist Werner Heisenberg, who had headed up Hitler's nuclear physics program during the war. An astonished Heisenberg recognized Berg in the photos as a "Swiss acquaintance who had accompanied him to the hotel, who had listened so attentively in the first row during his lecture" and had later asked "such intelligent and interested questions."4

It turns out that Berg was not Swiss, and his interest in what Heisenberg had to say was rather sinister. The catcher-turned-spy sat in the front row of that small lecture hall in neutral Switzerland with a loaded pistol in his pocket under orders to shoot Heisenberg, if the infamous Nobel Prize-winning physicist had said anything that indicated he was making progress on building a bomb for Hitler. Satisfied that Heisenberg was not in fact making meaningful progress on a German atomic bomb, Berg kept the gun in his pocket.

Berg's judgment was validated by a remarkable revelation that came to light when the Allied forces invaded Germany and captured the leading physicists: despite the fact that basic bomb physics had been discovered in Germany in 1938, despite the fact that Heisenberg, arguably the world's greatest physicist at the time (Einstein and Bohr having passed their prime), was working on nuclear physics for Germany, despite the very long tradition of German superiority in physics—despite all this—the Germans had made virtually no progress on the atomic bomb, while their American counterparts, sequestered on a mesa in the New Mexico desert, had succeeded. The results in Germany were simply pitiful.

What had gone wrong? Why was Germany unable to make even nominal progress on a bomb despite the conviction of a number of his former colleagues working for the Allies that if anyone could build a bomb, it would be Werner Heisenberg? ... full story

In 1855, the Rock Island Railroad and its subsidiary, the Rock Island Bridge Company, built a bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. A year later, the steamboat Effie Afton collided with one of the bridge piers, and the boat's owners promptly filed suit in federal court against the bridge company, asking for compensatory damages and the removal of the bridge as a hazard to navigation.

More was here, though, than met the eye: the bridge represented the first reach of the northern railroad system across the Mississippi, and the Effie Afton's Saint Louis owners saw this as a direct threat to the grasp that the river and the slave-holding South held on midwestern agriculture. At the trial, the bridge company's chief counsel charged that the boat had been deliberately wrecked as a political gesture, with the owners of the Afton attempting to break up the Northern railroads in just the same way that Southern politicians were threatening "a dissolution of the Union" in order to shore up the slipping hegemony of slavery. But then, he added, the wreck of the Afton was also a psychological gesture. The pilot of the Afton had been driven, not just by the politics, but by "passion"—by a mad, unreasonable urge to wreck what could not be controlled—when, if reason had been in charge, "the chances are that he would have had no disaster at all." The jury listened to both arguments, and then deadlocked, nine to three, in favor of the bridge company.

The chief counsel for the bridge company was Abraham Lincoln.

It does not come as a great surprise to find that Lincoln in 1857 would discover a political analogy between Southern threats to disrupt the railroads and Southern threats to disrupt the Union. ... full story

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