Study Guide

Bomb: The Race to Build-and Steal-the Worlds Most Dangerous Weapon Chapter 2

By Steve Sheinkin

Chapter 2

The U Business

  • A little background on what scientists know about atoms at this time:
    • Everything in the universe is made up of tiny particles, called atoms;
    • atoms are made up of even smaller particles: a nucleus composed of protons and neutrons packed tightly together, and then electrons orbit around the nucleus;
    • some atoms are radioactive, i.e.: their nucleus is unstable, which means that particles can break away and shoot out at high speeds.
  • So. It's 1938, and this guy Otto Hahn, a German chemist, sets up an experiment to see what will happen when a speeding neutron from a radioactive element crashes into a uranium atom.
  • Hahn discovers that the force of the collision causes the uranium atoms to split in two. This just about blows his mind.
  • Hahn immediately reaches out to his former partner, Lise Meitner, a German physicist, and asks what the heck this all means.
  • She doesn't really know what it means, so she asks her nephew Otto Frisch—also a physicist—and he's befuddled as well.
  • The two of them (Frisch and Meitner) begin really contemplating this uranium problem, and they realize that a theory of Niels Bohr's (about atoms being like water droplets) might explain everything.
  • Then, Meitner and Frisch realize that if an atom splits in this way, it will also produce a lot of energy as it breaks in two. So, if you were to split a whole bunch of uranium atoms at the same time, you would be releasing a whole poop-ton of energy—you'd essentially have the most powerful bomb ever built, by a long shot.
  • This news spreads like wildfire through the theoretical physics community. When Frisch tells Niels Bohr what they've discovered, he basically slaps his forehead and goes, "Well, duh."
  • He immediately shares his calculations (which he frantically does after speaking with Frisch) at a physics conference in Washington, D.C., and then newspapers publish his findings all over the country.
  • A young physicist named Luis Alvarez stumbles upon one of the blurbs and gets up, mid-haircut, to run the news to Oppenheimer.
  • Oppenheimer gets all fired up by the possibilities uranium fission could have, including using it to create a weapon of mass destruction.
  • However, Oppenheimer—being the smart dude that he is—quickly realizes that if his first instinct is to use this new power to make a huge bomb, he's not the only one having the same exact thoughts. This ordinarily wouldn't be a bad thing, but since it's the beginning of World War II, and the Germans are the ones who made the initial discovery…Yeah, this could be problematic.