The Manhattan Project: Witness to the Atomic Age



In 1939, German physicist Lise Meitner and German chemist Otto Hahn proved for the first time that a sufficiently powerful ray of neutrons could split the atom. This, in turn, led physicists to begin to speculate about the feasibility of a new and terrible weapon—the atom bomb. Scientists knew that a powerful bomb might be possible, mainly because of Danish physicist Niels Bohr’s “liquid-drop” model of the atom. In Bohr’s model, published in 1939, the nucleus is a droplet made up of protons and neutrons. Bohr believed that because of the electrostatic repulsions between positively charged protons in the nucleus, tremendous energies were required to hold the nucleus together. Thus, based on purely theoretical considerations, they speculated that this energy, if it could be released, would constitute a tremendously powerful weapon.1


Heavy Water Atom Bomb German Physicist TRANSURANIUM Element Manhattan Project 
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  1. 1.
    See Niels Bohr, “On the Constitution of Atoms and Molecules,” Philosophical Magazine, Series 6, 1913 for Bohr’s early thoughts on atomic structure.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Enrico Fermi, “Experimental Production of a Divergent Chain Reaction,” American Journal of Physics, 1952, p. 20; in this article Fermi discusses the structure, operation, and energy production in an atomic pile.1Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Urey had discussed isotope separation as early as 1932, in the classic paper, Urey, Brickwedde, and Murphy, “A Hydrogen Isotope of Mass 2 and Its Concentration,” The Physical Review, 1932, 40; here he discusses separation of hydrogen isotopes by diffusion.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For more on Oppenheimer’s college and graduate years, see Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, “The Young Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections,” Physics Today, April 1980; see also Katherine Russell Sopka, Quantum Physics in America (American Institute of Physics, New York, 1988), Vol. 10, p. 169.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Carl D. Anderson, “The Positive Electron,” The Physical Review, 1933, p. 43.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, “The Young Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections,” Physics Today, April 1980.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Marjorie Johnston, editor, The Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1967), p. 267.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Bird Dogs, “The Evolution of the Office of Naval Research,” Physics Today, August 1961.Google Scholar

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© Anthony Serafini 1993

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