In 1955, the subject for the Lindau meeting was chemistry and all Nobel Laureates in Chemistry were invited to participate. But generally, all Nobel Laureates of German nationality were welcome, irrespective of their discipline. Over the years, many of the German Nobel Laureates have participated regularly, often without giving lectures. The physicist Werner Heisenberg is one of them, with 15 participations, 8 of which included a lecture. For the 1955 Lindau Meeting, Heisenberg had suggested to the organizers that all Nobel Laureates connected with radioactivity in their work should be invited to come. The reason for his suggestion may be hidden in his own un-typical lecture. Usually, Heisenberg lectured in Lindau on frontier topics in microphysics.
But his lecture at this chemistry meeting is a plea for Germany to start its own nuclear reactor as a first step towards commercial nuclear power. This was a plea that came a year after the first real electricity producing nuclear reactor started outside Moscow and the Americans launched their submarine Nautilus, which had a nuclear reactor as power source. These two countries had already for many years had nuclear research reactors, and Heisenberg's lecture takes up these examples as first steps toward nuclear power. Why was the theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg engaged in this rather political question about reactors? The answer is probably connected with the history of nuclear fission, nuclear power and WWII.
The collaboration between the physicist Lise Meitner and the two chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann resulted in the discovery of the splitting of the uranium atom in the autumn of 1938. The possibility of a nuclear chain reaction had already been thought about and the Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard had actually already taken out a patent on a certain process. During the war, there were projects on both sides attempting to use the newly discovered fission process. We all know that one outcome were the atomic bombs which exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What is less generally known is that there were projects on both sides that attempted to harness and use nuclear power for peaceful purposes. On the German side, Heisenberg was one of the leading physicists engaged in the so-called Uranium project.
After the war he also published some papers on nuclear power. So his lecture in Lindau was based on many years of interest and engagement in these problems. To what extent his Lindau lecture helped Germany make a decision is not clear. What we know, of course, is that eventually nuclear research reactors were constructed and that also quite a number of nuclear power stations were built.
When I write this comment a little more than 55 years after the lecture, Germany has just decided to shut down all its nuclear power stations to concentrate on the development of alternative energy production instead. Someone writing a similar comment 50 years from now will probably know if the attempt turned out to be successful or not!