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Isotope separation to isolate Uranium-235


Chain reactions and atomic bombs
Hans Bethe Scientist
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The discovery of fission, as many physicists realized, brought with it the possibility of having a nuclear chain reaction, namely a neutron makes a fission in uranium and that emits several neutrons which then could fission another uranium and that could give you a chain reaction so that essentially all the uranium would disintegrate. And in this disintegration an enormous amount of energy would be set free, so it was clear to most physicists that this could lead to a new source of power and to a new weapon. Tuve wanted to keep that secret from the press. There was a lot of discussion at this Washington meeting in 1939 not connected with far away stars, but connected with tremendous energies on this earth. Enrico Fermi had come over to the United States, just at the same time. He was settled at Columbia University and he made it his business to explore the process of fission in detail and possibly make the chain reaction a reality.

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: Washington Conference, 1939, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Merle Tuve

Duration: 1 minute, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008