The play Operation Epsilon by Alan Brody covers a bizarro part of the end of World War II.

When Hitler came to power he enacted laws into targeting non-Aryans. These laws caused the emigration 15 Nobel Prize winners, most coming to the US.

Before this exodus, the Germans led the world in physics research. At the brink of WWII, Otto Hahn, a German chemist, discovered nuclear fission, the key technology in the atom bomb.

The Americans and the Germans seized on the discovery of nuclear fission and raced to build an atomic bomb. Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum physics, led the Nazi atom bomb project.

Eventually, American soldiers, not scientists on either side, won the battle in Europe. The Nazis fell before anyone figured out how to make an atom bomb. 

After the war, the British put the top 10 German scientists in a bugged house near Cambridge. The Brits wanted to understand how close the Germans were to an atom bomb.

The play Operation Epsilon dramatizes the transcripts from this house [0]. In a memorable scene, Otto Hahn, who was not involved in the bomb project, insults the other scientists who took part in Hitler’s research project [1].

While the German scientists were cooped up, the Americans dropped the world’s first atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Upon hearing this news, Heisenberg claimed disbelief and accused his captors of lying. He couldn’t believe the Americans already figured out how to make an atom bomb. 

In the play, Heisenberg goes off stage to work out how the Americans scientists bested him. Two days later, he comes back on stage and exclaims that “yes, I have done it!” [2]

He spent the whole war working towards the atom bomb and failing. But within days of hearing about the American’s success, he realized the error in his calculations and figured out how to build the bomb.

Just knowing that it could be done made it easier to accomplish and he accomplished what took him years in the span of two days. 

Once a task has moved from “theoretically possible” to “someone actually did it”, it becomes much more easy to achieve.  

Track and field experts thought no one could run a mile in less than four minutes. Just two months after Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier barrier, John Landy became the second runner under four minutes. 

George Dantzig, a math grad student at Berkeley, scribbled down a homework problem from the blackboard. After some difficulty towards finding a solution, he turned in his paper. It turns out he copied the wrong problem and solved a previously unsolved problem. 

You are much more likely to accomplish something that you are expected to achieve rather than something you think is impossible. So it makes sense for a manager to ask employees to reach an “impossible” goal without mentioning that it is impossible [3].

You can use the tactic of re-shaping a conversation from the obvious next steps to achieving the impossible.

Let’s say you want to grow your web blog. The obvious things to do are the things that have been helping your blog grow in the last few months. Post more articles, share via email, etc, etc.

Or you can ask yourself how you can achieve the impossible — how can you accomplish your 5-year growth goals in the next month? This requires ideas that generate outliers. Focusing all your effort on a viral video, writing the definitive piece on a trending topic, etc.

Reframing the impossible as achievable forces you to come up with creative solutions.

[0] — Even after losing the war, it doesn’t appear that Heisenberg gained any humility. Here is a transcript from one of his first days at Farm Hill.

Diebner (other scientist): I wonder whether there are microphones installed here?

Heisenberg: Microphones installed? (laughing) Oh no, they're not as cute as all that. I don't think they know the real Gestapo methods; they're a bit old fashioned in that respect.

Narrator: The Brit’s had installed microphones…

[1]  When hearing of the atom bomb’s usage in Japan, Otto Hahn considered committing suicide because he felt directly responsible through his discovery of nuclear fission. 

[2] At first I thought this was a fictionalization in the play. But I reached out to Alan Brody who confirmed that Heisenberg “realized that his numbers for the mean free path were wrong”.

[3] I was uncomfortable about the idea about asking people to do seemingly impossible things. But this can also use a reframing. We are often wrong about what is possible or impossible. So if you only think about things that you think are possible, you are artificially restricting you search space and probably including things that are actually impossible.