Even in classes with some of the brightest students in the world, "Oppie," as friends called him, never lost his know-it-all style. He interrupted physics lectures with his own theories, sometimes charging to the chalkboard, grabbing the chalk and declaring, "This can be done much better in the following manner." (Skinny Superhero.(1).23)
Oppenheimer was just too dang smart. This kind of behavior didn't earn him many friends, but it definitely came in handy later on, when having an extraordinary mind was necessary to advance the field of theoretical physics.
Hahn began his experiment with a piece of silver-colored metal called uranium. He placed the uranium beside a radioactive element. He knew that neutrons would speed out of the radioactive material. He knew that some of those tiny particles would hit uranium atoms. The big question was: What happens when a speeding neutron crashes into a uranium atom?
The answer was shocking. Hahn was sure he'd made a mistake.
As expected, some of the speeding neutrons hit uranium atoms. What staggered Hahn was that the force of the collision seemed to be causing the uranium atoms to split in two. According to everything scientists knew in 1938, this was impossible. (The U Business.(2).4-6)
Sometimes it seems like science is just a bunch of people goofing around in a laboratory. But as the great Adam Savage (of Mythbusters infamy) says, "The only difference between screwing around and science is writing it down." So Hahn is "screwing around" in the lab, wanting to know what happens when he shoots neutrons at uranium, and he ends up making one of the most significant scientific discoveries in history.
"I feel as if I had caught an elephant by its tail, without meaning to," Frisch wrote to his mother. "And now I don't know what to do with it." (The U Business.(2).20)
Frisch apparently wasn't just a skilled scientist; he also had quite the way with humorous imagery. He wasn't the only one who was stunned by his discovery, though. To this day the implications of fission are often muddled and debated by some of the world's great minds.
"For some time, we had known that we were about to unlock a giant," remembered Eugene Wigner. "Still, we could not escape an eerie feeling when we knew we had actually done it." (Chicago Pile.(13).39)
Sometimes knowing something and then finally doing it can be completely different. Like, you know running a marathon will be hard, but then while you are running the marathon you probably think it's the hardest thing ever—maybe even impossible hard. Same phenomenon here: they knew they were creating something that was powerful beyond anything they'd ever seen, but then when they actually saw it in action they were awestruck.
Enrico Fermi's Chicago experiment had proved that it was possible to spark a chain reaction in uranium. Fermi's uranium and graphite pile had released energy, but only a tiny amount, and slowly. The problem facing Oppenheimer's team was to figure out how to create a much faster chain reaction that would release so much energy it would cause a massive explosion—and the whole thing had to be light enough to travel by airplane. (The Gadget.(17).9)
Doing all that is no small feat. And remember: this was all before the days of computers. They had to calculate all of this using scientific equations and pencils. Can you imagine?
Everyone worked day and night, Monday through Saturday. Oppenheimer insisted people take Sundays off to rest and recharge. Scientists fished for trout in nearby streams, or climbed mountains and discussed physics while watching the sunrise. "This is how many discoveries were made," one scientist said. (Secret Cities.(21).13)
Occasionally it really pays to give yourself a break. These scientists were wracking their brains trying to figure out some pretty complicated science stuff, so a day off was probably much appreciated. Oppenheimer was a smart dude, knowing that people couldn't go at full speed 24/7. Plus, sometimes a break is all you need to see things from a different angle to solve the problem.
His scientists were wrestling with the challenge of building a plutonium bomb. Since firing two pieces of plutonium together inside a gun was too slow, the only solution, they reluctantly decided, was to blast the pieces of plutonium together with explosives—a process known as "implosion." Basically, the idea was to take several pieces of plutonium, about the size of a grapefruit all together. Explosives would be arranged around the plutonium, like a very thick skin around a fruit. The explosives would blast the plutonium together at tremendous speed, creating a critical mass and setting off a chain reaction—and an atomic explosion. It was a nice theory—but scientists doubted it would actually work. For an implosion bomb to succeed, the inward blast had to be perfectly symmetrical. That is, the force driving the pieces of plutonium together had to be exactly the same from every angle. One scientist suggested a comparison: Imagine surrounding an unopened beer can with explosives and trying to blow the can in on itself without spilling a drop of liquid. That was the challenge of implosion. If the shock waves moving in on the plutonium were not perfectly even, some plutonium would squirt out, instead of being driven in. A critical mass would not be achieved, and the bomb would fizzle. (Implosion.(27).18)
Please, please, for the love of Pete, do not try this experiment at home. These scientists were brilliant technicians—if they think it's hard to explode a beer can without spilling a drop, then it is. Trust them. Sheesh.
The fireball continued rolling and rising, twisting itself into an enormous mushroom shape, glowing dark purple thousands of feet above the desert. In the bomb's eerie light, General Farrell watched Oppenheimer's reaction. "His face," said Ferrell," relaxed into an expression of tremendous relief."
Frank Oppenheimer thought he heard his brother whisper, "It worked." (Test Shot.(31).60-61)
After all of their hard work, it's amazing that Oppie still had doubts that the bomb would be successful. Seeing that gigantic mushroom cloud must have been an enormous reprieve from all of the intense pressure he'd been under to produce the weapon.
"We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world," Truman wrote in his diary.
A few days later, Groves sent a more complete report to Potsdam. Truman sat in stunned silence as Harry Stimson read aloud. The bomb had exploded with the almost unbelievable force of eighteen thousand tons of TNT, an explosive used in regular bombs. The heat of the blast completely vaporized the steel tower holding the bomb. For hundreds of feet in all directions, sand was melted into a greenish glass. Instruments a mile from the blast measured temperatures of 750 degrees Fahrenheit. Not a plant or animal in this radius was left alive. (Little Boy.(32).10)
Can you imagine being the ones who discovered this? Imagine what it feels like when you're baking cookies and you open the oven while your face is too close. Now double that amount of heat, and that's what was measured a mile away from the blast. That is incredible. Those scientists must have felt such a sense of responsibility and triumph at once.
"Hahn was completely shattered by the news [about Hiroshima], and said he felt personally responsible," Rittner reported. "He told me that he had originally contemplated suicide when we realized the terrible potentialities of his discovery and he felt that now these had been realized and he was to blame." (Reaction Begins.(34).26)
We like to think scientists are always pursuing the dream of making a ground-breaking discoveries, but what about what happens when a discovery leads to something like the atomic bomb? It must feel awful to have your work used for such terrible purposes.
"We keep saying, 'We have no other course,'" lamented Truman's advisor David Lilienthal. "What we should be saying is, 'We are not bright enough to see any other course.'" (Epilogue.49)
This is a bit depressing: They've just proven they're some of the greatest scientific minds in the world, and yet they still have huge limitations. The course being discussed, if you remember, is whether or not to build the hydrogen bomb, which is capable of even more destruction than the uranium and plutonium bombs. If only they could have seen a different course of action.