Most of us know of these basic events, but many do not know of the complicated decisions and scientific breakthroughs that paved the way towards that fateful day in Hiroshima. Every day we are closer to having nuclear arms fall in the hands of someone who wishes to do harm with those weapons. Many question why we think the U. S. is justified in having our own atomic collection.
This is why it is important to understand how the atomic bomb came about and why we decided it was necessary to use it. First reports of the bombs in Japan only reported that a “new type of bomb” had been used. Most had no concept of what an atom bomb was or why it was so powerful. The story of the atomic bomb opens with a series of new discoveries in physics that began near the turn of the century. The term classical is applied to the physics that scientists developed prior to that time (Cohen, 17). Much of it came from the work of the Father of Physics, the great seventeenth-century English scholar, Sir Isaac Newton.
Newton was a scientific genius. Today, however, a competent student with a good high school physics course probably has a more accurate knowledge of the physical universe than Newton had. This is especially true concerning the most basic building blocks of matter, atoms. Newton, as did others before him, developed a theory about the structure of atoms. According to Newton’s theory, atoms were like marbles. They were solid and hard, but unlike marbles, they could not be further divided.
It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that scientific experiment began to prove otherwise. Thereafter, knowledge of atomic structure moved ahead very quickly (Cohen, 18). By the mid-1930’s, dedicated effort by British and other European scientists had revealed a new world of atomic structure, one filled with incredibly tiny systems of interacting subatomic particles containing electrons, protons, and neutrons. In 1938, two German physicists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, were experimenting with uranium. They discovered that bombarding uranium atoms with neutrons didn’t create a new element as they had previously assumed. Instead, uranium atoms split into two other elementsbarium and krypton.
This process was called nuclear “fission” (Batchhelder, 11). These two new atoms weighed less together than a single uranium atom. Therefore, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity on mass and energy (E=mc2), the difference in missing mass must be made up in energy (Roleff, 14). Two other scientists had been helping Hahn and Strassman at the time. Their names were Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner.
Together they determined that the calculated energy that was released from one single uranium atom would be 200 million electron volts. This energy was roughly 20 million times the energy of an equal portion of TNT. A pound of this matter converted to raw energy would produce more than half the amount of electricity generated in the US (Roleff, 15). Within months scientists from all over the world had repeated and refined the experiment.
At the time of Hahn and Strassman’s discovery, very few physicists were still working in Germany. During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Germany was the center of the scientific world (Roleff, 20). When Hitler began his rise to power in the early 1930’s, he also began his persecution of the Jews. As a result of his policies, many scientists left Europe for the safety of the United States.
Many of these scientists became political refugees who contributed greatly to the success of the future Manhattan Project (Cohen, 22). This intellectual emigration took place at the same time as physicists on both sides of the Atlantic were discovering the secrets of the atom (Batchhelder, 18). The most famous of these scientists was Albert Einstein, who settled in Princeton University (Batchhelder, .