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“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Quote from Bhagavita attributed to J. Robert Oppenheimer

“Father of the Atomic Bomb”

The history of the nuclear age is a series of steps—many quite small, others of medium stride, and others still veritable leaps. Discoveries such as the presence of electromagnetic forces noted by Maxwell to Roentgen’s stumbling onto the presence of x-rays, to Becquerel finding naturally occurring x-rays from uranium, to the Curies discovering the key components of are just a few examples of such steps (Fig. 27–1). From the late 19th century and into the 20th century, several important larger discoveries were made: Rutherford discovered alpha and beta particles, and Planck articulated the quantum theory of physics. During that time fundamental principles of radioactivity were being sorted out; such as isotopes, radioactive decay, and the properties of the types of radiation.

Figure 27–1

Marie Curie (pictured here) and her husband Pierre’s work led them to identify radioactivity and thus win them the Nobel Prize.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

In 1905, the history of science and of the world was altered irrevocably when Albert Einstein, working full time as a patent clerk in Bern, Germany, conceived of and derived what is perhaps the most recognizable equation in history: E = mc2. Einstein’s theory of relativity had profound implications, a worthy discussion of which is beyond the scope of this text. For our purposes, the most important was its inference that enormous energy is contained in even a single atom. It was not long before the hunt to access that energy began (Fig. 27–3).

Figure 27–3

Aspects of Einstein’s work formed the theoretical basis for the development of the atomic bomb.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

The critical breakthroughs to harnessing atomic energy came in the late 1930s. When nuclei were bombarded with slow-moving neutrons, they became unstable and split into smaller particles. However, these smaller particles added up to a weight less than that of the original nuclei. The missing mass had become energy: a vast amount of energy. The implications of this research, particularly its military potential was realized quickly in several Western nations, including Germany, England, and the United States. As the 1930s progressed, tensions between Hitler’s Germany and other European powers erupted into World War II and the work of atomic physicists worldwide became a critical resource for the war effort.

The story of the development of nuclear weapons is a fascinating and pivotal one that altered the history of the 20th-century world. During WWII, both the Nazis and the Americans raced to develop viable nuclear ...

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