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Contrasting theories from Heisenberg and Landau (Part 1)


Staying in Rome and Fermi's work with uranium
Edward Teller Scientist
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Hungary, you know, at that time was not quite Fascist but on the way to it. Italy was the Fascist state. The rela- relations were good. I was asked to come to Italy by a famous physicist in Italy so I was invited to a wonderful place called the Palazzo Falconieri, a palace right on the Tiber which the Hungarian government has rented to house Hungarians who were working- scientists who were working in Rome. And I remember that in Palazzo Falconieri I got a small room, not very furnished, on the top floor, but there was one property of that room - there was a built-in alarm clock, which I needed, because I like to sleep late. The alarm clock was a loud cannon on the other, other side of the Tiber which was fired every day at noon and if I did not wake up earlier, I was woken up at twelve o'clock by the cannon on the Tiber River. I had a wonderful two or three weeks in Rome, got acquainted with Fermi, played ping-pong with him. Actually, our interaction on physics was not very great. I was working with Placzek on the Raman effect. Fermi did something incomparably more interesting, of which at that time I knew little, but which in the course of time became extremely important in my life. Shortly before my visit there, the neutron has been discovered and I will talk about it a little more in detail. But Fermi and his students started to bombard with neutrons practically every element in the periodic system, produced radioactivities and studied them. And in the course of this business, they also studied the results on the bombardment of uranium and that was quite different from the rest. Because if you bombard magnesium, or anything else, you got a radioactivity that decayed with a certain period, possibly you got two radioactivites together which decayed with two different periods. And they analyzed all this. But when they bombarded uranium, they got a mess. They got something that could be explained by having produced dozens of radioactivites. Fermi interpreted this as having found the elements heavier than uranium, uranium being the heaviest element known at that time. And for that discovery, he got the Nobel Prize. The strangest thing in the history of physics: Fermi, a very great physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, got the Nobel Prize for the one error he made in physics because what he found were by no means transuranic elements, they were the fission products. But about that I want to talk later. I only want to say that had Fermi discovered fission in Italy, had told Mussolini about it, the whole development of atomic bombs may have gone differently and very much less favorably to all of us.

The late Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller helped to develop the atomic bomb and provided the theoretical framework for the hydrogen bomb. During his long and sometimes controversial career he was a staunch advocate of nuclear power and also of a strong defence policy, calling for the development of advanced thermonuclear weapons.

Listeners: John H. Nuckolls

John H. Nuckolls was Director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 1988 to 1994. He joined the Laboratory in 1955, 3 years after its establishment, with a masters degree in physics from Columbia. He rose to become the Laboratory's Associate Director for Physics before his appointment as Director in 1988.

Nuckolls, a laser fusion and nuclear weapons physicist, helped pioneer the use of computers to understand and simulate physics phenomena at extremes of temperature, density and short time scales. He is internationally recognised for his work in the development and control of nuclear explosions and as a pioneer in the development of laser fusion.

Duration: 5 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008