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Name: Dave
Status: other
Grade: other
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 12/19/2005


Question:
I am confused... Reading David Bodanis' book the atom was split by German scientists in 1942.

Yet I always understood that it was split in the Cavendish Laboratory, by Walton and Cockroft, in the 1930's. Which is right?


Replies:
There is a matter of definition here to some extent. By "splitting the atom" I assume that you refer to nuclear fission. Nuclear fission has been around for billions of years, since the first heavy nucleii were produced in supernovae. Mother Nature ran the first nuclear reactor in Oklo, in western Africa several billion years ago. Radioactive decay was studied by the Germans, the French, the British and the U.S. in the late 1800's so any number of scientific nations could claim precedence, and in a sense that is studying the "splitting of the atom". The first "controlled" nuclear fission was developed Enrico Fermi, and others, at the University of Chicago in 1942. The weapons potential of nuclear fusion was widely recognized by any number of physicists and chemists in the 1930's, including Niels Bohr of the "Bohr atom" fame. Perhaps the most important unknown voice who recognized the significance of nuclear fission was Leo Szilard. It was at Szilard's insistence that Einstein was convinced to send his famous letter to President Roosevelt calling for the formation of what was to become the Manhattan Project -- and the rest is history -- as the saying goes. Many of the key influential scientists in that project were Jewish physicist refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930's, and there has been a lot of speculation about what course history might have taken if Hitler were not so rabidly anti-Semetic. Some thumbnail history can be found at the sites below, and from cited there.

http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Med/Discfiss.html

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aso/databank/entries/dp42fe.html

Vince Calder



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