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Perception of fission in the US in the 1940's

  1. Jun 4, 2013 #1

    DrDu

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    Physicists in all nations realized immediately after the experiments of Meitner and Hahn in 1938 that building a fission bomb might be possible. Was this possibility publicly known or discussed, at least in the US which entered the war only at the end of 1941? After all, people were much more interested in scientific progress than nowadays and there may have been popular articles on the topic.
     
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  3. Jun 4, 2013 #2
    What were they thinking! No Nobel Prize was awarded to Meitner.
     
  4. Jun 4, 2013 #3

    SteamKing

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    It's not clear what you mean by 'publicly known or discussed'. Do you mean by the populace at large? by physicists and other scientists?

    Meitner fled Germany for Scandinavia in the summer of 1938. Previous experiments which had accidentally resulted in fission had lacked adequate explanation for the results. Many scientists in Europe had known of these experiments, including Niels Bohr. After the results of Hahn's experiments had been obtained, Meitner published an article in 'Nature' in early 1939 which discussed her conclusion that nuclear fission would explain the anomalous results of these and earlier experiments. Once this article appeared, then the news that fission was possible spread throughout the physics community almost like a chain reaction itself.

    The Nature article appeared in January 1939, and by August of that year, shortly before hostilities broke out in Europe, Szilard and Wigner drafted the letter to FDR which Einstein signed. Even before this, the Germans and others had started to restrict what was published about fission; after Einstein's letter had reached FDR, similar restrictions on the public dissemination of the knowledge began in the US. Before these restrictions began, a few articles for the popular press had been published, one in particular by William Laurence which appeared in Sept. 1940 in the Sat. Evening Post. After the war began, a lot of the information, particularly that contained in public libraries, was withdrawn from circulation at the request of the government. Once the US entered the war in 1941, heavier official restrictions were placed on who had access to knowledge about the bomb project.
     
  5. Jun 4, 2013 #4

    DrDu

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    Yes, that is exactly my interest. Is this article available online?
    On what basis is it possible in the US to withdraw publications from public libraries?
    However, it is quite clear that the government put restrictions on it's own secret research, especially during wartime. I just wondered whether there was some discussion scientists not involved in secret projects.
     
  6. Jun 4, 2013 #5
    There's the current counterpart of this issue today. Prepare for current events, class :wink:

    Two things, 1) the ease of developing ricin from castor beans, and 2) the latest trend of "printing" a handgun with the new wave of 3-D printers. These issues showcase some of the salient dilemmas that advancing technologies produce.

    http://www.oregonlive.com/today/index.ssf/2013/05/experts_say_ease_of_making_ric.html

    http://redalertpolitics.com/2013/04/27/homemade-handguns-made-from-3-d-printers-in-the-works/

    Szilard was the first, historically known, to have realized that a chain reaction was possible. I think he had this idea even before the Germans split the atom. He definitely kept it "under wraps" until he approached Einstein with it.
     
  7. Jun 4, 2013 #6

    DrDu

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    I know, I think more relevant is the case of the article on virulence of the flu virus.
     
  8. Jun 4, 2013 #7
    Well, as a child of the 80's, we were instructed that fornication was bad because you were going to contract the HIV virus. That turned out to be bogus for the straight folk, as I am.

    I remember taking that seriously because it was "science." What a joke, I wish I could go back and take off all the condoms I used...:smile:
     
  9. Jun 4, 2013 #8

    SteamKing

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    Before we go veering off topic, Szilard indeed realized the idea of nuclear fission was possible and that possibly a chain reaction could occur as a result several years before uranium was confirmed to be fissionable by the German experiments. In 1933, Szilard reportedly read an article on a talk given by Rutherford, and realizing the implications of such a concept as fission with a chain reaction, filed for and obtained a patent on the idea in the UK in 1936.

    Richard Rhodes discusses how the idea and discovery of fission came about, and how it was transmitted to the US in his book, 'The Making of the Atomic Bomb.'

    As to the restrictions on dissemination of information about the implications of uranium fission, the scientists themselves first discussed the idea amongst themselves before the US government was made aware of the possibility of building a fission bomb. At the time, it was feared that the Nazis would push ahead in fission research quite rapidly, given their head start, and produce a weapon against which no other country could counter nor withstand. In the US, the authorities, in particular the FBI, could expect cooperation from the public when it was requested to withdraw what published material existed because at that time there did not exist the type of suspicion toward government agencies which exists today and also because the public began to realize that war against Germany was approaching.

    As far as locating some of these articles, check with your local library. It is possible bound copies might have been retained. It has been reported that the Sat. Evening Post is currently scanning copies of the magazine dating back to 1821 which will eventually be available online. Laurence wrote at least two stories for the SEP which were published in 1940, along with one article for the New York Times which was published that same year on the front page.
     
  10. Jun 4, 2013 #9

    DrDu

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    So he must have become a rich man!
     
  11. Jun 4, 2013 #10
    WTF is that supposed to mean? Do you think that impending nuclear annihilation is a joke?
     
  12. Jun 4, 2013 #11

    DrDu

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  13. Jun 4, 2013 #12

    DrDu

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    I just mean that with a patent on nuclear fission and all the nuclear boom after the war he must have received a lot of money.
    I found the patent:
    http://worldwide.espacenet.com/publicationDetails/biblio?locale=de_EP&CC=GB&NR=630726
    Apparently he handed it over to the british goverment (I wonder how much money they made out of it).
     
  14. Jun 4, 2013 #13
    Well, I'm too tired to check your resourses, so I'll take them on face value

    I had no idea Szilard "cashed in" on that after we killed a quarter million Japs.
     
  15. Jun 4, 2013 #14

    DrDu

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    I doubt he did. But it is remarkable that he filed this patent as early as 1936.
     
  16. Jun 4, 2013 #15

    SteamKing

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    I think folks have a somewhat unsophisticated and erroneous view of patents. Applying for and receiving a patent is not a guarantee that a financial windfall will result. A patent is not like a lottery ticket. There is no evidence that Szilard ever received a penny of royalties for his patent, and given his character and views on nuclear weapons, I am certain he would have been horrified had any royalties materialized.

    And the chain reaction patent was not the only one Szilard applied for. He applied for a patent on a nuclear reactor with Fermi, and applied for patents on cyclotrons and linear accelerators. He also applied for a patent with Einstein on a refrigerator which had no moving parts.

    Although Szilard worked on the bomb in the US during the war, he did so with some reluctance, and he left the project as soon as possible after the Japanese surrender.
     
    Last edited: Jun 4, 2013
  17. Jun 4, 2013 #16

    DrDu

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    Yes, I heard this about Szilard before. My statement about him getting rich was meant ironically.
    But you are right in that I don't exactly understand why you file a patent if you don't want to exploit it.
    The interesting point, which I didn't know, is that Szilard already foresaw the possibility of a chain reaction using uranium, even before Hahn's experiment, although apparently he did not talk about fission.
    Any idea about these ominous tetra-neutrons he mentions?
     
  18. Jun 4, 2013 #17
    Are you kidding? I'd file a patent on my cut fingernails if I thought there was even a remote possibility that I could make a buck off it.
     
  19. Jun 4, 2013 #18
    Oh, c'mon, those 1821 clothing trends are soooooooooo yesterday. Why would you want to read those?
     
  20. Jun 4, 2013 #19

    SteamKing

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    The Sat. Evening Post was more oriented toward literary pursuits and news articles rather than being a glitzy magazine like Vogue and GQ are today. The scanning project is meant to preserve and provide the information contained in the SEP for those interested in research or just simple curiosity. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the novels of many authors (Dickens is a prime example) appeared in serial form in magazines like the SEP before they were published in book form.
     
  21. Jun 4, 2013 #20
    I was joking, Steam, you didn't have to qualify your assertion, but I'm grateful for the additional data. :wink:
     
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