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Bomb in WWII

Bomb in WWII

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Published by Richard Rhodes
The development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War and its Consequences. Lecture by Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize
The development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War and its Consequences. Lecture by Richard Rhodes, winner of the Pulitzer Prize

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Published by: Richard Rhodes on May 16, 2011
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04/07/2012

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Richard Rhodes609 Summer Hill RoadMadison CT 06443 USA(203) 421­5882Fax: (203) 421­5469RichardRhodes1@aol.com
The Atomic Bomb in the Second World War
Nuclear fission was discovered accidentally in Nazi Germany on December 21st, 1938,nine months before the beginning of the Second World War. It was a discovery that inthe long run would sharply limit national sovereignty and change forever therelationship between nation­states, and it came as a complete surprise.The German radiochemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working at the KaiserWilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry in Dahlem, a suburb of Berlin, were bombarding a solution of uranium nitrate with lukewarm neutrons, transmutingmicroscopic quantities of the uranium into a brew of substances of differingcharacteristic radioactivities which the two chemists believed might be new manmadeelements heavier than uranium as well as familiar elements like radium, one of uranium's natural "daughters." But instead of radium Hahn and Strassmann found barium in their irradiated solutions, an element about half as heavy as uranium thatthey had not expected to find there, and when they had consulted with their physicistcolleague Lisa Meitner, who was in exile in Sweden, and when she had consulted with
 
her physicist nephew Otto Frisch, who came over from Denmark to visit her, it becameclear that the unexpected barium was a marker for a new species of nuclear reaction,that in fact their neutrons had split uranium nuclei into two nearly equal pieces, one of  barium and one of krypton, and that the new reaction was fiercely exothermic, tenmillion times as much energy coming out as the neutrons carried in. Physicists hadknown for forty years that enormous energy was locked up in the atom. Here at lastwas a way to release it. Otto Hahn brooded on the probable military applications of hisdiscovery and seriously considered suicide.Word spread quickly in the small world community of physicists. Hahn andStrassmann published their results in the German science journal
Naturwissenschaften
.Frisch and Meitner told Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, and followed up withconfirming physical experiments published in the British journal
Nature
, borrowingfrom biology a name for the new reaction. Bohr brought the news to America. Sovietphysicists working in Leningrad under young Igor Kurchatov, British physicists,German physicists, the French team at the Radium Institute in Paris, Americanexperimenters from coast to coast rushed to demonstrate fission in their laboratorieswith off­the­shelf equipment; the discovery, as the physicist Philip Morrison would saymuch later, was "overripe."
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A Japanese Army lieutenant general who was an electricalengineer assigned a member of his staff to track it. If Hahn and Strassmann hadn'tdiscovered nuclear fission in Germany, others would have discovered it in some otherlaboratory somewhere else. Here was no Faustian bargain, as some even all these years
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later find it comforting to imagine. Here was no evil machinery one or another noblescientist might have hidden from the politicians and the generals. To the contrary, herewas a new insight into how the world worked, an energetic reaction older than theearth that science had finally devised the instruments and arrangements to coax forth."It is a profound and necessary truth," the American theoretical physicist RobertOppenheimer would say, "that the deep things in science are not found because theyare useful; they are found because it was possible to find them."The physicists saw immediately what might be done with the new reaction.Hungarian emigr
é
physicist Leo Szilard told his American patron Lewis Strauss on January 25, 1939, that nuclear energy might be a means of producing power andmentioned "atomic bombs."
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Philip Morrison remembers that "when fission wasdiscovered, within perhaps a week there was on the blackboard in RobertOppenheimer's office [at Berkeley] a drawing­­a very bad, an execrable drawing­­of a bomb."
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"These possibilities," comments American theoretician Robert Serber, "wereimmediately obvious to any good physicist."
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 Within months of the German discovery,the Italian Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi would stand at his panoramic office windowhigh in the physics tower at Columbia University, look down the gray winter length of Manhattan Island alive with vendors and taxis and crowds, cup his hands as if he wereholding a ball and say simply, "A little bomb like that, and it would all disappear."
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Why would these men of good will, who believed themselves to be members of apeaceful international community of scientists, want to build a weapon of mass
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