MadSci Network: Science History

Re: How was the atom first split in 1942?

Date: Mon Sep 27 13:19:10 1999
Posted By: Dan Berger, Faculty Chemistry/Science, Bluffton College
Area of science: Science History
ID: 937825722.Sh

How was the atom first split in 1942? What happened that day and how was it done and discovered?
The atom was not first split in 1942. It was first split in the Berlin laboratory of Otto Hahn, in 1938. Hahn and his student Fritz Strassman bombarded uranium with neutrons and studied the results; they detected barium in the debris, something Hahn thought was impossible. How could you get a lighter nucleus from a heavier one?

He wrote to his longtime friend and collaborator Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jew who had just fled Germany for Scandinavia. She suggested that the uranium nucleus had been broken up by the neutrons; Hahn thought this a ridiculous idea. "Try to think of some other possible explanation," he begged.

Nevertheless, as Sherlock Holmes said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." Hahn and Meitner both published papers on Hahn's results in 1939, and Meitner named the process "fission."

Hahn (but not Meitner) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944 for this work. In spite of the seeming snub, Meitner and Hahn remained close friends until they both died in 1968. It is probable that Meitner, a lifelong pacifist who refused to work on the atomic bomb, preferred not to be recognized for her contribution to the eternal tendency to make war as hellish as possible.

A good deal of information on Hahn and Meitner is available on the Web:

Dan Berger
Bluffton College

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