* In 1913, H. G. Wells wrote a book called The World Set Free
* The novel begins: “The history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power. Man is the tool-using, fire-making animal. . . . Always down a lengthening record, save for a set-back ever and again, he is doing more.”
* In the book, the human race develops an atomic bomb.
* This was written in 1913.
* A few years earlier, Frederick Soddy had published a book about the properties of radium which Wells had read.
* Soddy and others, including Rutherford, had the slow natural radioactive decay of elements like radium continues for thousands of years, and that while the rate of energy release is negligible, the total amount released is huge.
* Wells wondered what would happen if you could get all of that energy to release at once?
* He got a lot of the details wrong – but plutonium, the fissile material used in the first atomic explosions, wasn’t actually discovered until 1941.
* Wells’s “atomic bombs” have no more force than ordinary high explosive and are rather primitive devices detonated by a “bomb-thrower” biting off “a little celluloid stud.”
* He also said that ‘A man could carry about in a handbag an amount of latent energy sufficient to wreck half a city’.
* I don’t know about a handbag, but suitcase bombs certainly are a thing.
* In the 1960s the U.S. built a mini nuclear device– the Special Atomic Demolition Munition (SADM).
* It weighed 80-100 pounds, was small enough to fit in a duffel bag or large case and was designed for sabotage missions– airfields, bridges, dams.
* It had an explosive charge of roughly one thousand tons of TNT (one kiloton).
* The Russians also developed a suitcase bomb.
* The highest ranking GRU defector, Stanislav Lunev, has said that suitcase nukes might be already deployed by the GRU operatives on US soil to assassinate US leaders in the event of war.
* He claimed that arms caches were hidden by the KGB in many countries.
* They were booby-trapped with “Lightning” explosive devices or Molniya as its known in Russian.
* Just like Mad Max’s Interceptor, a sequence of specific actions had to be taken in the correct order to render the device safe prior to moving or opening the container, or the device would automatically detonate.
* This detonation was designed to be lethal to anyone in its immediate proximity, as well as being sufficient to destroy all materials in the cache.
* In 1992, KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin defected to the UK, and brought with him 30 years of handwritten archives.
* He indentified the location of one hidden suitcase radio transmitter, not a bomb, which exploded when Swiss authorities sprayed it with a high pressure water cannon in a wooded area near Bern.
* Several others caches were removed successfully.
* The lightest nuclear warhead ever acknowledged to have been manufactured by the U.S. is the W54, which fit into 11 in by 16 in (28 cm by 41 cm, small enough to fit in a footlocker-sized container) cylinder that weighed 51 lbs (23 kg).
* Anyway, back to Wells’ book.
* His bombs ‘made a mighty thunder in the air, and fell like Lucifer’.
* They produced ‘tremendous pillars of fire . . . Hard upon the sound of them came a roaring wind, and the sky was filled with flickering lightnings and rushing clouds.’
* They destroyed buildings like a scythe cutting down grass, while mountainous clouds billowed up into the air.
* The book was published in 1914, just as World War I was starting.
* In 1932, the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, a Wells fan, read the book.
* The following year, he realized that you could indeed make an atomic bomb.
* In the first memorandum passed to President Roosevelt, outlining the possibility of making a bomb, Szilard’s first citation is to The World Set Free.
* For the next few episodes, we want to tell the story about how that happened.
* In the book, Wells’s atomic bombs were used in a war that pits an alliance of Britain, France and America against Germany and Austria.
* The war takes place in 1956.
* As a result, all the major cities of the world are destroyed.
* A conference is then called in Switzerland where the Britain’s ‘King Egbert’ abdicates in favour of a world state.
* Limitless atomic energy then solves the world’s problems, leaving the majority of the world’s population to pursue a career as artists.
* Wells died in August 1946, a year after the atomic bomb had been used for the first time and ten months after the United Nations had been established, so he may have felt justified in his optimism.
* Of course, it didn’t play out exactly as he prophesized.
* Out story begins early 20th century.
* With New Zealand chemist Ernest Rutherford.
* Who said nothing good ever came out of that bunch of sheep fuckers?
* Rutho was Interested in radiation being given off by certain materials.
* It came in three types: alpha, beta and gamma.
* It was alpha radiation that particularly interested him because it comprised particles of the tangible mass.
* These had a positive charge and, in 1907, he proved they were helium ions – that is, atoms of helium stripped of their electrons.
* At the time, atoms were thought to be solid objects with lightweight electrons embedded in a mass of positively charged material, like raisins in a pudding.
* This was known as the ‘plum pudding’ model.
* He began firing alpha particles at a thin sheet of gold.
* These energetic particles should have passed straight through.
* However, some bounced back.
* Rutho said ‘It was almost as incredible as if you fired a fifteen-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.’
* This meant that the atom could not be a uniform solid.
* He concluded It must be largely empty space with most of its mass concentrated in a tiny central nucleus.
* It was a mini-solar system.
* This was in 1911.
* Rutherford is therefore known as the father of nuclear physics.
* A couple of years later, Neils Bohr, a Danish physicist, realised that the chemical properties of an atom are caused by the electron that orbit the nucleus.
* But the radiation came from the nucleus itself.
* In 1919, Rutherford discovered that if you shot alpha particles at nitrogen atoms, you could turn them into oxygen atoms.
* This was the first time one element had been deliberately changed into another.
* He was therefore also the world’s first successful alchemist.
* The process also gave off another particle.
* He realised these were the nuclei of hydrogen atoms.
* Which were later called protons.
* By 1932, the British physicist James Chadwick discovered other particles that had no charge.
* He called them Neutrons.
* For which he received the 1935 Nobel Prize for Physics
* And the atomic model was complete.
* Also in 1932, two of Rutherford’s students, John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, were the first to split the atom.
* And in the same year, the first cyclotron was built at Berkley in California, to produce high energy beams needed for further nuclear research.
* It was discovered that when you bombarded a nucleus with a proton, a small amount of matter was converted in energy.
* This was explained by Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2.
* where E is the energy, m is the mass and c is the speed of light, around 300,000 kilometres a second, or some 670 million an hour. So c2 is a very large number indeed.
* But in 1932 Rutherford, Bohr and Einstein didn’t think there was any potential in the near future to capture this energy reaction for any practical purpose.
* In a speech in 1933 – the year Hitler came to power in Germany – Rutherford called such expectations ‘moonshine’.
* Einstein compared particle bombardment with shooting in the dark at scarce birds.
* Because the chances of hitting a nucleus during the bombardment process was about one in a million.
* Bohr agreed that the chances of taming atomic energy were remote.
* All three Noble Laureates were about to be proven wrong.
* The next year, 1934, Enrico Fermi was working at Mussolini’s Accademia d’Italia in Rome.
* He tried using neutrons instead of protons to bombard the nucleus, figuring that it’s neutral charge meant it had a better chance of not being rejected by the positive charge of the nucleus.
* He also figured out a way to slow the neutrons down during the bombardment, which meant they spent more time near the nucleus and had a better chance of intercepting it.
* One element Fermi tried bombarding was uranium, the heaviest of the elements.
* He was successful, but didn’t realise exactly what he’d done.
* The answer came out of Nazi Germany in late 1938.
* By then Fermi had left Italy which was becoming anti-Semitic.
* He had won the 1938 Noble Prize for his work on fission and used the prize money to establish himself in New York.
* At the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, run by Werner Heisenberg, radio-chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann were bombarding elements with neutrons when they made an unexpected discovery.
* They found that the new elements produced when they bombarded uranium with neutrons were barium and lathanum, but there was a significant mass gap between the original uranium and the resulting elements.
* Which meant a LOT of energy must have been released.
* Two Germans physicists, Lise Meitner, a Jewish colleague who had fled to Sweden that summer, the first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany, and her nephew, Otto Frisch, realised that some new kind of process was happening.
* They called it “fission”.
* BTW, Otto Hahn received the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for nuclear fission
* Lise was ignored because she was a woman.
* It was also realised that during the uranium breakdown, two neutrons were released.
* If these neutrons could be used to break apart other uranium nuclei, then a chain reaction could be created, releasing a LOT MORE energy.
* But as we saw earlier, Leo Szilard had already come up with the idea of an atomic bomb.
* It turns out he was a huge fan of H G Wells.
* In 1929 he’d travelled to London to meet Wells to buy the rights to one of his books.
* In 1932 he read The World Set Free and in 1933, by now a Jewish fugee from Nazi Germany living in London, he heard Rutherford’s “moonshine” speech, and had the idea that a chain reaction could be created and therefore create an atomic bomb.
* Szilard patented the idea of an atomic bomb.
* Now there’s a way to make some cold hard cash.
* But he feared it would end up in the hands of the Nazis, so he transferred the rights over to the British Admiralty.
* Doh! There goes that cash.
* Then he moved to New York to work with Fermi.
* Meitner and Frisch communicated their findings to Neils Bohr in January 1939, just as he and Fermi were to give a speech at a conference on Theoretical Physics in New York.
* They then presented the idea to the American physicists.
* In March 1940, scientists working at Columbia University discovered that uranium-235 was the best material for fissioning with slow neutrons, not uranium-238 that everyone else was working with.
* The problem was, uranium-235 made up on 1/140th of uranium found in nature.
* You had to first separate the 235 from a pile of 238.
* And you needed a LOT of 238 to get enough 235 to create a critical mass.
* But it was stll doubtful that the chain reaction would work.
* And there wasn’t enough 235 available to put it to the test.
* So they needed to get more 235.
* And to get more 235, they needed a shit ton of 238.
* And that was going to cost money.
* LOTS of money.
* Government money.
* But how were they going to get the attention of the government which was trying to pull the country out of the Great Depression and was also worrying about the big war that was happening in Europe?
* How about getting the most famous scientist in the world to get their attention?
* On 2 August 1939, Albert Einstein sent a letter to FDR.
* It said:
* Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations.
* In the course of the last four months it has been made probable through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
* This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove too heavy for transportation by air.
* The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and former Czechoslovakia, while the most important source of uranium is in the Belgian Congo.
* In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust the task with a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following:
* a) to approach Government Departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States.
* b) to speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of university laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with private persons who are willing to make contributions for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining co-operation of industrial laboratories which have necessary equipment.
* I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsacker, is attached to the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.
* Yours very truly,
* Albert Einstein
* The letter was to be delivered by Alexander Sachs, a Wall Street economist, who sat on the board of Lehman Brothers, and was an unofficial advisor to the president, along with a memorandum prepared by Leo Szilard.
* Although he was a longtime friend, even Sachs had trouble getting in to see Roosevelt, who was busy dealing with the situation in Europe.
* On 23 August, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact.
* European armies began to mobilize and on 1 September Hitler invaded Poland, precipitating World War II.
* It was not until 11 October that Sachs got in to see the president.
* Sachs had read Einstein’s letter and Szilard’s memorandum, and explained that recent research on chain reactions utilizing uranium made it probable that large amounts of power could be produced – enough to make extremely powerful bombs.
* The German government was actively supporting research in this area and it would sensible if the US government did the same.
* But FDR didn’t give a shit.
* He said it wasn’t something he thought the government should get involved in.
* Sachs went back to his hotel in shock.
* He spent the rest of the day meditating on a park bench.
* Then he had an idea.
* The next morning he went back to the White House and interrupted FDR at breakfast.
* FDR said “What bright idea have you got now? How much time would you like to explain it?”
* Sachs says he replied that he would not take long.
* “All I want to do is to tell you a story. During the Napoleonic wars a young American inventor came to the French Emperor and offered to build a fleet of steamships with the help of which Napoleon could, in spite of the uncertain weather, land in England. Ships without sails? This seemed to the great Corsican so impossible that he sent [Robert] Fulton away. In the opinion of the English historian Lord Acton, this is an example of how England was saved by the shortsightedness of an adversary. Had Napoleon shown more imagination and humility at that time, the history of the nineteenth century would have taken a very different course.”
* After Sachs finished speaking the President remained silent for several minutes.
* Then he wrote something on a scrap of paper and handed it to the servant who had been waiting at table.
* The latter soon returned with a parcel which, at Roosevelt’s order, he began slowly to unwrap.
* It contained a bottle of old French brandy of Napoleon’s time, which the Roosevelt family had possessed for many years.
* The President, still maintaining a significant silence, told the man to fill two glasses.
* Then he raised his own, nodded to Sachs and drank to him.
* Next he remarked: “Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up?”
* It was only then that Roosevelt called in his attaché, [Brigadier] General [Edwin] “Pa” Watson, and addressed him—pointing to the documents Sachs had brought—in words which have since become famous:
* “Pa, this requires action!”
* Roosevelt wrote back to Einstein on 19 October 1939, telling him that he had set up a committee consisting of Sachs and representatives from the Army and Navy to study the use of uranium.
* He believed that the US could not take the risk of allowing Hitler to achieve unilateral possession of an atomic bomb.
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