The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part I: Physics Background, 1919-1939

From Protons to Neutrons: Fermi

Rutherford, Einstein, and Bohr proved to be wrong in this instance, and the proof was not long in coming. Beginning in 1934, the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi began bombarding elements with neutrons instead of protons, theorizing that Chadwick's uncharged particles could pass into the nucleus without resistance. Like other scientists at the time, Fermi paid little attention to the possibility that matter might disappear during bombardment and result in the release of huge amounts of energy in accordance with Einstein's formula, E= mc2, which stated that mass and energy were equivalent. Fermi and his colleagues bombarded sixty-three stable elements and produced thirty-seven new radioactive ones.7 They also found that carbon and hydrogen proved useful as moderators in slowing the bombarding neutrons and that slow neutrons produced the best results since neutrons moving more slowly remained in the vicinity of the nucleus longer and were therefore more likely to be captured.

One element Fermi bombarded with slow neutrons was uranium, the heaviest of the known elements. Scientists disagreed over what Fermi had produced in this transmutation. Some thought that the resulting substances were new "transuranic" elements, while others noted that the chemical properties of the substances resembled those of lighter elements. Fermi was himself uncertain. For the next several years, attempts to identify these substances dominated the research agenda in the international scientific community, with the answer coming out of Nazi Germany just before Christmas 1938.

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