An Interview with Miriam E. Hiebert

The writer talks fission, scientific mysteries, and conserving a not-so-scary mummy.

An Interview with Miriam E. Hiebert

As a former English major, I have no idea what electrons do. Or protons, for that matter. My tangles with science classes stopped at Oceanography 101 (which I somehow thought would involve watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries for a whole semester).

So, I approached Miriam E. Hiebert’s The Uranium Club: Unearthing the Lost Relics of the Nazi Nuclear Program with the kind of abject fear normally reserved for, well, Nazis and uranium. But, in the tradition of books like Driving Mr. Albert and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Hiebert’s book is more of a hybrid. Part mystery, part treasure hunt, and part historical narrative, The Uranium Club follows the tale of a heavy black metal cube delivered to Tim Koeth, an unassuming professor and nuclear physicist at the University of Maryland, who recognized what it was immediately: uranium taken from the nuclear reactor that Nazi scientists had tried — and failed — to build at the end of World War II. It turned out Koeth had another cube just like it.

This sent Hiebert, a cultural-heritage scientist, on an odyssey to trace the tale of these cubes — two of the original 664 on which the Third Reich had pinned its nuclear ambitions and hopes for America’s downfall.

The ease with which you tell this story reminds me of the best science-based mystery stories. Do you have some background in creative nonfiction? And did you use any books as a guide or have a favorite that you held up as your shining example?

I really didn’t have much background in big nonfiction (or fiction) writing projects before taking on this book. I have, however, always been an avid reader, and I absolutely spent a lot of time as I was working thinking about the books that I have read that I felt did a good job of communicating complex topics in a way that was accessible and interesting to a broader audience. I don’t know that there was one book necessarily that I used as my example, but there are so many great ones out there — finding good stories to emulate was easy. I will be thrilled if readers of The Uranium Club feel like it belongs in this group.

How far-flung was your research? And what sort of travel did you do in the writing of the book?

A lot of the research for this project was, by sheer coincidence, centered right around the University of Maryland. Not only did two of the cubes find their way to the university’s campus, but most of the documentation that was useful in piecing together this story was found at either the National Archives or at the Niels Bohr Library and Archive, both of which are also located in College Park [Maryland]! I did, however, get to do a little traveling. I was able to visit Germany and see the cube that is held in the geology collection at the University of Bonn, as well as travel to Haigerloch to visit the Atomkeller museum, which now occupies the site of the last nuclear-reactor experiment conducted in Germany. I also was able to travel to Boston to see Harvard University’s cube and made my way to Beverly, Massachusetts, to the site of the facility where the cubes were eventually sent.

Since your book reads like a mystery, did you already know the ending when you began writing?

By the time I started writing, I knew most of the information that would eventually be included in the book. The mystery for me really revealed itself more slowly, over the course of several years. I have a background in science and in science research; an experiment either does or doesn’t show you the thing you are looking to find. With archival research, you have far less control. You just must keep looking at everything and anything in the hopes that something helpful will eventually pop out at you, which can be frustrating and monotonous. The moments when you find a piece of paper or a detail in a pile of reports that ties some longstanding loose ends together are exceptionally exciting.

You were writing for a general audience about a pretty complicated topic. How did you know what parts needed dumbing down?

I have a background in science but not in nuclear physics. Pretty much everything I know about fission and nuclear reactors I learned from Tim Koeth through the course of this project. Tim is a consummate teacher, and explaining complex ideas in a way that is easy to understand is one of Tim’s superpowers. I absolutely believe that all science is understandable by everyone if it is explained by someone who is genuinely interested in teaching.

I know that when you were completing your degree, you participated in conserving a mummy. What was that like? Did you have nightmares or worry about a curse?

Conservation is amazing! Conservators can clean, fix, and stabilize all sorts of different objects and materials — it really seems like magic sometimes. Getting to experience that up close with the mummy as an undergrad was really a huge catalyst towards the topics I find most interesting today. I learned a lot, including that I was less interested in the actual conservation work than in providing answers to the questions conservators have (is a pigment authentic or a modern addition, for example). I discovered that science could be used to answer questions about objects in museums that you can’t get from the historical record alone. I did have dreams about Tia (still do, actually) but not nightmares. There have been some objects I have seen or gotten to work with over the years that have some distinctly bad energy, but she wasn’t one of them.

[Photo by Tim Koeth.]

Cathy Alter is a member of the Independent’s board of directors and the author, most recently, of CRUSH: Writers Reflect on Love, Longing, and the Power of Their First Celebrity Crush.

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