Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1061
Rhodes describes extensively, up to World War II, the lives and work of an international community of scientists, mostly physicists and chemists, whose work eventually culminated in the making of the first atomic bomb. Theories of the existence of atomic particles date back to Greek philosophy in the fifth century B.C., and, by the seventeenth century A.D. most scientists assumed the existence of the atom. However, no actual proof of the existence of the atom had been formulated until J. J. Thomson discovered the electron in 1897. In 1884, Thomson was chair of the distinguished Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge where he exerted tremendous influence on a generation of scientists. Einstein’s revolutionary theory of relativity was announced in 1915. Leo Szilard, a Hungarian-born Jewish theoretical physicist, entered the University of Berlin in 1921, where he collaborated with Einstein. Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealand born British physicist credited with inventing nuclear physics (also called atomic physics). Rutherford studied under Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory, replacing Thomson as head of the lab in 1919. Rutherford’s most significant accomplishment was the development of a theory of atomic structure called the Rutherford atomic model.
Niels Bohr, a Danish physicist, made significant advances with his formulation of the Bohr atomic model. In 1921, Bohr became director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen, which, under his direction, soon gained an international reputation as a leading center for research on quantum theory and atomic physics. Bohr broke new ground in the application of quantum theory to the study of atomic and molecular particles. Robert J. Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist, studied atomic physics under Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory. In 1927, Oppenheimer took a post in physics at The University of California at Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology. In 1932, James Chadwick, an English physicist who worked with Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory, discovered the neutron. Otto Hahn, a German chemist who was working with Fritz Strassmann, discovered nuclear fission. The Italian physicist Enrico Fermi conducted important research on nuclear fission at the University of Rome.
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, many of Europe’s greatest physicists emigrated in order to flee Nazi persecution, several of them settling in the United States. Szilard emigrated to London, where he first conceived of the possibility of creating an atomic bomb, and later settled in the United States, taking a post at Columbia University. Einstein, in particular danger of Nazi persecution due to his international prominence, fled to the United States, where he took a post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, in New Jersey. In 1938, Fermi, under the pretext of traveling with his family to Sweden to receive his Nobel Prize, fled fascist Italy, eventually settling in the United States. Meitner fled Nazi Germany in 1938 to settle in Sweden, where she continued her research with her nephew Otto Frisch. After Nazi Germany invaded Denmark, at the outbreak of World War II, Bohr and his family fled to England and then the United States.
The Manhattan Project
Upon reaching New York in 1939, Bohr alerted Einstein to the possibility of Germany developing an atomic bomb. Along with several colleagues, Bohr persuaded Einstein to write a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, suggesting that the United States initiate research into the development of an atomic bomb before Germany developed one. However, government officials failed to comprehend the enormity of the implications of these new developments, as explained by several brilliant scientists. It was not until...
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