The Berlin Project
by Gregory Beford
Copyright 2017 by the author
“What if we had the atomic bomb a year earlier? The easiest and least expensive method of separating isotopes, a method used throughout the world today, is based on a centrifuge procedure that Harold Urey proposed in 1940. General Groves chose the diffusion method instead. Karl Cohen, Urey’s able assistant during that period, believes that Groves’ decision delayed the atomic bomb by a year.
“If Dr. Cohen is right, atomic bombs of the simple gun design might have become available in the summer of 1944 and, in that case, would surely have been used against the Nazis. Atomic bombs in 1944 might have meant that millions of Jews would not have died, and that Eastern Europe would have been spared more than four decades of Soviet domination.”
– Edward Teller, Memoirs
Benford posits that the team working on the centrifuge method got enough independent funding to fix the engineering problems they were having, and got their method chosen over the diffusion method.
This alternate history novel takes it from there, and follows the career of Karl Cohen, the lead engineer-chemist on the centrifuge project.
That Cohen happens to be Benford’s father-in-law, well….
Benford takes more liberties with probabilities than with history. It’s true that the Manhattan Project had so many Nobel laureates involved that if you were in the right circles, you couldn’t walk down the hall at Columbia University without bumping into one. And Benford does put people like Freeman Dyson and Arthur C. Clarke in the right places where they were in the early 40s. But that Cohen would be gallivanting all over Europe, going on spy missions with Moe Berg and chatting not only with Werner Heisenberg but Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of Germany’s Abwehr? And in that latter meeting, getting information that would lead to the uncovering of Kim Philby as a Soviet agent?
It does stretch things a bit, but then, it’s Benford’s father-in-law. He’s allowed.
Overall, it’s a pretty fast-paced novel. There’s action not just in the labs (fortunately, there’s very little actual scientific detail to bog things down) but also on the battlefields of Europe. It’s a pretty plausible alternate history, too. Germany didn’t have anything resembling a real bomb program, but one can suppose that having used chemical weapons in the Great War, they would not lose much sleep over using radioactive dust as an area-denial weapon.
And of course, with a cease-fire in the West, Germany would be free to send all their troops against the Soviets in the East. With the uncovering of Soviet agents in the UK, it’s not likely that the US and UK would be too worried about the fate of the Soviet Union. With their army stopped at the border with Poland, they’d be denied Eastern Europe – and that includes all the industry and resources they literally plundered and shipped back east.
With a weakened Soviet Union, the United Nations actually has some real muscle. Yeah, it’s a much better world in the end. Even for Cohen, who’s become something of a celebrity in the world at large. Hey, how can you deny the father of your wife a happy ending?
I suppose we all dream of changing the world for the better in one way or another. Karl Cohen actually had the chance. Not that he’d have any regrets over his real life, though: