Lise Meitner, Otto Frisch, Niels Bohr and the Atomic Bomb

By A. G. Moore

(Adapted from the book: What is Radioactivity? The Basics)

6/11/2015

bohr einstein

(This article was adapted from the book What is Radioactivity? The Basics)

It would be difficult–perhaps impossible–to write about the development of atomic science without mentioning the contributions of Niels Bohr and Lise Meitner.

While Ernest Rutherford is credited with describing the nucleus of an atom, it’s Bohr who gave him the clue as to how electrons are arranged on the outer shell of the atom.

Niels Bohr collaborated with many of the most important physicists of the 20th century. In the picture above, he is shown with Albert Einstein. Not only did the work of both men contribute to the development of the atomic bomb, but both were refugees from Nazi ideology. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis in Germany and Hitler’s genocidal policies, these two scientists probably never would have added their voices to the chorus that urged the bomb be built.

Bohr was born in Denmark. When Germany invaded Denmark, Bohr fled to Sweden and, when Sweden became unsafe he fled with his family to England.  In the race to unlock the power of the atom, Niels Bohr played a critical role, but he was only one of several people who were responsible for understanding how nuclear fission worked. Energy derived from nuclear fission–splitting the atom–powered the atomic bomb.

It was a colleague of Bohr’s, Otto Frisch, who came up with the term ‘nuclear fission’.  Before 1938, the two words ‘nuclear’ and ‘fission’ had never been put together.

Frisch worked in Bohr’s Copenhagen laboratory.  His aunt, Lise Meitner, was  a remarkable physicist who, before 1938, was working with German scientists. These physicists and chemists were trying to split the atom and unlock the enormous energy contained within.  However, Meitner was forced to flee from Germany in ’38.  It was then that she met up with her nephew, Otto, in Stockholm and told him about the work her German colleagues were doing.

Frisch was excited. He and his aunt discussed the issues that prevented the Germans from making progress.  Together, Frisch and Meitner came up with a solution. They discovered a way to unleash the power of the atom.

Frisch contacted Bohr, who was in the US at the time.  Bohr told American scientists about the German efforts to make a bomb and about the progress Frisch and Meitner had made toward splitting the atom.  This information was the final push that led to the American and British determination to build a bomb. The feeling was,  if Germany was so close to owning the weapon, the world was in danger.  The scientists, and the governments who hired them, believed the US and Britain needed to get the bomb before Germany did.

Ironically, Germany never did make an atomic bomb, despite the progress Meitner had witnessed when she worked there. Germany’s failure, many believe, was the result of Nazi ideology.  All the Jewish scientists, including Meitner, Einstein and Frisch, had to leave the country. And, many excellent scientists who might have helped to build the bomb were ordered instead to join the military.  This ‘brain drain’ likely resulted in the failure of Germany’s nuclear program.

Once the US and British governments made the commitment to build a bomb most of the brightest nuclear scientists aided in the effort.  One who did not, who refused to build such a weapon, was Lise Meitner.  As a matter of fact, to the end of her life she expressed regret for the contribution she made to physics which enabled the bomb to be built.

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Marie Curie: A Life Illuminated by Intelligence, Determination and Courage

Marie_Curie-Laboratory before 1937 author unknown
A picture of Marie Curie’s laboratory where she did much of her work on radium.

When we read about famous historical figures their accomplishments seem obvious, their acclaim assured. Closer examination often reveals a different story. Marie Curie, for example, almost didn’t get her first Nobel Prize. Even after winning the prize, she and her husband struggled to find appropriate laboratory space in which to conduct their experiments. And, though Marie Curie was the first woman to hold a professorship at the Sorbonne, she was only given that position after her husband’s became vacant because of his death.

Most modern observers marvel at Marie Curie’s intelligence and insight. A review of the obstacles she overcame suggest that perhaps her most influential traits might have been determination and courage. Marie had faith in her own abilities, but stronger than that was a conviction that her work was important.

Albert Einstein once described Marie Curie as someone who was totally indifferent to fame. She was a scientist. She did hard, grinding labor. She extracted radium and polonium from pitchblende; the yield of this extraction was in minute quantities. The exquisitely slow pace of the process did not deter Marie. She endured physical consequences of her effort–radiation burns and fatigue–without complaint.

When World War I broke out, Marie Curie used her scientific knowledge to save lives. She designed portable x-ray units and traveled to the front so she could offer her services to wounded soldiers. Marie Curie did this as she did everything else in her life, with courage, intelligence and a lack of regard for herself.

As we read about Marie Curie, and other accomplished figures in history, we marvel at what they achieved. Often, however, the better part of their story may be the road they traveled to realize their achievements. The strength of character displayed in some cases–certainly in Marie Curie’s case–is certainly as noteworthy as the honors earned.

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Two books issued by Rhythm Prism are dedicated to Marie Curie’s life. One, Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium, is designed for a general audience and the other, Marie Curie: Science Pioneer,  addresses the interests of children.  Material in both books overlaps, although specialized information about Polonium and Radium are contained in Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium.

Marie and Pierre Curie discovered two elements on the periodic table, radium and polonium. One of the difficulties they had in working with polonium was the fact that it kept “disappearing”.  What they did not understand at the time was that radioactive elements decay at a regular rate, called its half life.  Below is a chart (which appears in the Rhythm Prism book Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium) that shows the process of thorium decay.  The chart was the work of Ernest Rutherford, who was himself a Nobel Laureate.

thorium chart

Marie Curie: Radium, Polonium and Marie Curie: Pioneer in Science are written in very basic language.  If you’re interested in gaining a rudimentary understanding of radioactivity and learning about Marie Curie, both books will serve that purpose.

General Interest Book

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Children’s Book (with study guide)

BeFunky_Marie for site

 Another book that introduces more information about radioactivity is the Rhythm Prism publication, What Is Radioactivity? The Basics.  This book is offered in  6 by 9 and  8 1/2 by 11 workbook version. Reading level is adult or mature student.

what is radioactivity front  cover 6 by 9 print site