The Second World War ended with two black mushroom clouds rising over the scorched remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But most people don’t realize how easily the war could have ended not with an American atomic bomb but a German one, obliterating not a Japanese city but Paris, London, or even New York. As the war began, all the pieces were in place for the Germans to develop an atomic weapon. They had scientific visionaries like Werner Heisenberg, a manufacturing base committed to total war—and a big head start. The Allies were willing to go to desperate lengths to stop Adolph Hitler from getting his hands on an atomic bomb. They assembled a team of men and women to spy on, sabotage, and even assassinate members of the Nazi bomb project. They would become known as The Bastard Brigade.
But in the years leading up to the war, the scientific community couldn’t yet anticipate that artificial radioactivity was possible, let alone that it could lead to a weapon on the scale of an atomic bomb. That initial discovery would fall to a husband and wife team in Paris with a famous surname, a string of failures behind them, and a lot to prove: Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie.
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