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Chain reactions and atomic bombs


The discovery of nuclear fission
Hans Bethe Scientist
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The discovery by Hahn and Strassmann of fission; that the nucleus of uranium when bombarded by neutrons could split into two approximately equal fragments. Well, Hahn and Strassmann discovered chemical evidence that this happened, and Frisch and Meitner interpreted it correctly as the splitting into two parts, and they coined the word fission. Niels Bohr was very impressed by this. He had Frisch in his lab at the time and was conscious that this was a terribly important discovery with practical consequences. The Washington meeting which used to be held in early spring was this time held much earlier, I don't remember precisely when, but it was brought together and Tuve, one of the organizers, excluded the press this time.

The late German-American physicist Hans Bethe once described himself as the H-bomb's midwife. He left Nazi Germany in 1933, after which he helped develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1967 for his contribution to the theory of nuclear reactions, advocated tighter controls over nuclear weapons and campaigned vigorously for the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: atom splitting, uranium, nuclear fission, neutron, Washington Conference, Otto Hahn, Fritz Strassman, Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Merle Tuve, Niels Bohr

Duration: 1 minute, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008