Permanent link to this item
Scientists Have Ushered In A Whole New Era, Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 193, 16 August 1945
Scientists Have Ushered In A Whole New Era
First Use' Of Atomic Energy In 1945 Means
WHEN the world produces ah historian with a sense of values —several generations hence—he will naturally ignore most of the dates that appear in black type in to-day's works and »will probably curse his predecessors over the trouble he has to go to in digging out of past records the dates that have really mattered. The year 55 B.C. will be dropped out; it left only a few coloured tiles, broken pots and mangled place names. So will 1066; all that happened that year was a brawl between two barbarous tribes, of little more importance than the defeat of the Arawa by the Tuhoe at Pukekaikahu. In 1588 it did not really matter which side won; the Spaniards would have left no more permanent mark on Britain than did the Romans or the Normans, or they themselves did on the Netherlands, so why waste pages on the Great Armada? Napoleon mattered even less; he will be forgotten. The Great War of 1914-18 ended with things very much as they were when it started; if our future historian mentions it at all he will probably sum it up in Professor R. A. Millikan's epitaph on the brilliant young scientist Henry G. J. Moseley, killed on Gallipoli at the age of 27: "Had the European War had no other result than the shutting out of this young life, that alone would make it one of the most hideous and most irreparable crimes in history."
Footnote To The Bomb Of the past six years, to us now living so fraught with destiny, the historian of the future will probably say that even if Hitler had conquered the western hemisphere and Hirohito the eastern, they would have ruled only a little while, as uneasilv as the nigger boy sitting on the safety valve of a Mississippi stern-wheeler, and then have disappeared, leaving no more mark upon the face of the earth than did Napoleon. This war that has loomed so portentously over us will be a mere footnote to the atomic bomb. Instead of the names of Napoleon, Nelson, Wellington, and a handful of semi-imbecile European kings of whom no historian can tell the truth without being prosecuted for an obscene publication, this history will have been honouring the names of Watt, Stephenson. Arkwright, Crompton and scores of others who had been forgotten in the intervening centuries; and instead of Kaiser Wilhelm, Marshal Foch, Winston Churchill or Adolf Hitler, men will receive honoured mention whose names have been known only to a handful even among their contemporaries. Even this supposes that there will he a historian several generations hence, taking an interest in the past; many doubt it, for atomic energy is a mighty dangerous toy to put into the hands of an animal still only a few generations removed from the ape—just far enough to have lost his apelike virtues and replaced them by superstitions. So many things are possible now that were dismissed only a few years aeo by a great scientist like Dr. Millikan as a "childish Utopian dream" that there is no end to speculation: perhaps it is wiser just to record and to try to understand, if only dimly, the revolution in our time. This really started away back in 1596, when Henri Becquerel noticed that some specimens of rare stone had "fogged" a photographic plate, wrapped in black paper, on which they were lying in the laboratory cupboard. Apparently the ore emitted some hitherto undreamed-of radiation.
Discovery Of Radium Pierre and Marie Curie, working in the same laboratory, bought with their own money a ton of the ore, pitchblende, and, after months of arduous work, only briefly interrupted by the birth of their daughter li-ene, they announced m July, 1898, the discovery of a new, intensely radio-active substance which they named polonium, after Madame Curie's native country, Poland. In December of the same year, they announced the discovery of radium, having obtained from a ton of pitchblend, a tiny speck, less than a pinhead in size, of radium chloride. The amount of energy being given off by this minute speck of matter amazed the scientists, and a small army of them set to work on the problems it offered. In 1903, Sir Ernest Rutherford and Professor Soddy (whose name is preserved in that of the rich uranium ore soddite from the Belgian Congo) offered the explanation that was subsequently verified—that the atoms of radium were exp!oding. but each time a particle was emitted, the remainder consolidated to form a new particle, this process continuing through a chain of emissions until the radium settled down into the prosaic element lead.
iFurther investigations along the . lines indicated by Lise Meitner showed that the energy released by the splitting of the uranium nucleus under bombardment by neutrons far exceeded that given out in ordinary radioactivity, and that each time a uranium nucleus split more than one new neutron was shot out. This gave hope that in the most suitable of the many forms in which uranium exists, the process, once started, would be continuous, each atom that exploded "touching off" its neighbours. Furthermore, means were found to start the reaction by applying only a minute fraction of the energy that would be liberated. Thus was realised an ambition that, even in 1939, was expected to take the rest of the century to accomplish. 1 Thanks to Albert Einstein, the scientists engaged on this problem knew in advance what a terriffic output of energy they would have to deal with when they succeeded— yet in Germany any boor, if he could neither read nor write but was an "Aryan," was considered a more desirable citizen than Einstein. Deprived Of Citizenship At Pittsburg in 1934—the year in which he was deprived of German citizenship and his property was confiscated by the Nazi Government— he delivered a lecture on "A Simple Proof of the Equivalence of Mass and Energy," producing the equation E = MC-, where E was the energy in ergs, M the weight in grams, and C the speed of light in centimetres per secfond. An erg is a very small unit of energy, 419000000 of them making up a foot-pound, the work done in lifting a pound weight one foot, while one horse-power is equal to 550 footpounds per second, but a gram is only about one third (.0352739) of an ounce, while C 3 is, in round figures, 9000000000000000000000. With these figures, it takes quite a lot of paper to show how much energy, even in horse-power, is released if a pound of whatever-you-like is transformed, in the space of one second, into energy. Sir James Jeans has worked it out that an ounce of matter would keep a 50-candlepower searchlight burning for a century, and that the 1 energy that a man puts into a long life time of heavy manual labour weighs only a 60,000 th part of an ounce—or, conversely, an ounce of matter turning into energy can do as much work as 60,000 men can do in a lifetime. Some of the names that will loom big in the list of those who changed the face of civilisation will be:— in^ toin i e Henri Becquerel (15521908), who discovered radio-activitv in 1896. Pierre Curie (1859-1906), another Frenchman, who isolated radium in collaboration with his wife Marja Curie (1867-1934), who came : from Poland and whose maiden name i was Sklodowska. , Irene (1897) and Frederic Curie- ! Joliot, their daughter and son-in- i law, who synthesised new radio- 1 active elements. < Ernest Rutherford (IS7I-1937), born at Nelson and educated in New : Zealand, who explained the nature < of radio-activity, discovered the 1 nature of the atom, and first ch need one element into another. Miniature Solar System
.was three hundred thousands times, that of an equal weight of coal, yet at the end of that time almost as much lead "would remain as there had been radium at the beginning. If such a slight loss of mass liberated so much energy, what would be liberated, the scientists asked, if all the weight of lead could be similarly used up. They calculated that on that basis, the atomic energy in a glass of water would drive a liner round the world, and the atomic energy from a thimbleful of atoms, if liberated suddenly, would m a ke the most violent explosive known look insignificant. Revolutionary Idea From his researches into radioactivity, Sir Ernest Rutherford, in 1911, arrived at what Sir Arthur Eddington considers the most revolutionary idea in the whole history of science. He showed that even the densest substances were mostly empty space and that the atom consisted of a minute, dense positively charged centre surrounded by negatively charged particles. Two years later, Prof. Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist who escaped from the Nazis during the war to take a leading part in the discovery of the atomic bomb, produced a picture of the atom as a nucleus with the electrons whirling in orbits around it, like a miniature solar system, and he worked out the tremendous forces that were at work in the atom. Atoms of one element differed from those of another, it was seen, only in having a different number of electrons whirling around Jn this miniature solar system, but Sir Ernest Rutherford, with a dryness that makes a journalist weep, announced in 1919 that he had attained the goal sought by man for two thousand years in " a report entitled "An Anomalous Effect in Nitrogen." He had bombarded nitrogen with alpha particles given off by radium, and once in a while one of these fast-moving particles broke up an atom of nitrogen, one of the products being hydrogen. Transmutation had come true. i
That experiment set the course for a vast amount of research, for scientists sought for means of obtaining projectiles of great energy with which to bombard atoms and break them down. Three of Sir Ernest Rutherford's pupils found the soughtof particles they wanted when they passed a million-volt current through hydrogen, and still more effective ones were obtained after 1932, when H. C. Urey discovered "heavy hydrogen" or deuterium, with twice the weight of ordinary hydrogen. So far transmutation has been successful only with the lightest elements, but Enrico Fermi, in Italy, turned the " new weapon on to uranium, the heaviest, as it was already unstable and radioactive breaking down in a period of millions of years to radium, and thence to lead. By this means he produced come atoms, but not enough to identify, of some substance much more radioactive than uranium. Had Jewish Blood In the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, with a generator that gave them 3,200,000 volts, a team of scientists headed by Otto Hahn and a brilliant Austrian woman, Lise Meitner, repeated the experiment, and showed that the substances produced were radioactive forms of known elements.
This was the stage that had been reached in 1938 when, because of her Jewish blood, the Nazis deprived themselves of the services of Germany's greatest woman scientist. Dismissed from the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, Lise Meitner went to Sweden, and later made her knowledge available to the Allies. It was she, along with the Danish physicist. Otto Robert Frisch, who first realised that the effect of the experiments in Berlin had been to split the uranium atom in two. , .
From that date until the first atomic bomb fell on Japan, the progress of research in atomic physics was in every country the most closely guarded of secrets, for whoever first solved the problem would have the most terrible weapon of which the world had ever dreamed.
Niels Bohr (18S5), of Copenhagen who, showed that the atom was like a miniature solar system. Escaping from Denmark after the Nazi occupation, he contributed greatly to the Allied researches that produced the atomic bomb. Lise Meitner (1878), born in Vienna, and Germany's greatest woman scientist until the Nazis expelled her in 1938. Her knowledge of the researches into the disof cranium at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, in which she had taken a leading part, was of immense value to the Allies. Otto Hahn (1879), who, with Lise Meitner, in Berlin, discovered the radio-activity element protoactinium. Albert Einstein (1579), who was born at Ulm, in Germany, but became a naturalised Swiss at the age of 15. He went to the United States in 1933 and was deprived of citizenship and property by the Nazi Government in the following year. His theory of relativity, first published in 1905, and its subsequent developments have had widespread effects in scientific thought. Otto Robert Frisch (1904), a Dane who collaborated with Dr. Meitner after she left Germany in interpreting the results of her researches in Berlin. That future historian will no doubt find it typical of the deplorable state of 20th century civilisation that the first use made of atomic energy was to blow the town of Hiroshima to bits; he might deplore it, but on the other hand he might attribute his own existence and the continued existence of the earth to the fact that men saw, in the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what awful powers they had unleashed, and learned a little commonsense therefrom.
When Pierre Curie measured the energy given off by radium in changing itself into lead, he found that it
Scientists Have Ushered In A Whole New Era, Auckland Star, Volume LXXVI, Issue 193, 16 August 1945
Fairfax Media is the copyright owner for the Auckland Star. You can reproduce in-copyright material from this newspaper for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons New Zealand BY-NC-SA licence . This newspaper is not available for commercial use without the consent of Fairfax Media. For advice on reproduction of out-of-copyright material from this newspaper, please refer to the Copyright guide.
This newspaper was digitised in partnership with Auckland Libraries.
Use these buttons to limit your searches to particular dates, titles, and more.
Print, save, zoom in and more.