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Outbreak of World War II; scientists' efforts


Isotope separation to isolate Uranium-235
Hans Bethe Scientist
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Niels Bohr and John Wheeler set out at the same time to understand the theory of fission and they wrote the fundamental paper on the subject and came to the conclusion that it was the rare isotope of Uranium-235 which was responsible for fission. That, in a way, was perhaps good, because in order to make a bomb it would be necessary to... to separate the uranium isotopes which turned out to be a very difficult task. In fact the Germans who were of course very much aware of the possibilities, decided very early that the isotope separation was beyond their means. Not so the English. In England very soon two scientists, Rudolph Peierls and Otto Frisch came to the conclusion that a bomb could be made, and another refugee scientist, Francis Simon, concluded that it was possible to separate uranium isotopes by a fairly straightforward method which in the long run however took an enormous amount of... of technical and industrial development.

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: Niels Bohr, John Wheeler, Rudolph Peierls, Otto Frisch, Francis Simon

Duration: 2 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008