How scientists traced a uranium cube to Nazi Germany’s nuclear reactor program via Science News

A radioactive relic from World War II wound up in the hands of physicist Timothy Koeth


The mysterious cube arrived in the summer of 2013. Physicist Timothy Koeth had agreed to go to a parking lot for an unspecified delivery. Inside a blue cloth sack, swathed in paper towels, he found a small chunk of uranium.

It was about 5 centimeters across, with “a white piece of paper wrapped around it, like a ransom note on a stone,” Koeth says. On the paper was a message: “Taken from the reactor that Hitler tried to build. Gift of Ninninger.”

Koeth, a collector of nuclear memorabilia, was enthralled. “I just immediately knew what this thing was,” he says. During World War II, German scientists had attempted to build a nuclear reactor, until their uranium cubes — more than 600 of them — were confiscated by Allied forces and shipped to the United States.

Koeth, of the University of Maryland in College Park, thought his cube could be from that cache but wanted to confirm the hunch. In the process, he and University of Maryland graduate student Miriam Hiebert came to a striking conclusion, reported May 1 in Physics Today: Contrary to conventional wisdom, Germans scientists could have created a nuclear reactor during the war, but competition between teams stymied the effort.


Koeth eventually plans to loan his cube to a museum. For now, it’s ensconced in a custom-built, handheld display case, and is the jewel of Koeth’s collection of nuclear artifacts. Those other items include graphite from that first reactor at the University of Chicago, greenish glass from sand fused by an atomic bomb test and uranium-infused glassware known as Vaseline glass that glows green under ultraviolet light.
“I’m humbled” by the cube, Koeth says. Uranium fuels nuclear power, which could help free humanity from fossil fuel dependence, he says. But the element can also be used in devastating weapons. Nuclear physics “has the ability to save us and to totally destroy us. And that little cube represents all of that.”

The pair still want to chase down the remaining cubes from Heisenberg’s reactor attempt. They know the whereabouts of 10 others, including one at the Smithsonian Institution based in Washington, D.C., and another at Harvard University. Others are probably scattered around the United States. “They could be in people’s basements all over the country,” Hiebert says. Perhaps to some, it’s just “ ‘that weird cube that my dad had in his office,’ ” she says.

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