The Dawn of the Age of the Atom

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee

The discovery of the atom was one of the most important points in the history of not just science but humanity in general. It had far-reaching, and sometimes even disastrous, implications for all of humanity. 

The 'Chicago Pile', the nuclear reactor created by Fermi's team in 1942.
The very first instance of nuclear fission was achieved at Stagg Field at the University of Chicago in December 1942, when Fermi created a self-sustaining reactor, called the ‘Chicago Pile’. (Image: Melvin A. Miller, Argonne National Laboratory/Public domain)

Early in December of 1942, as the Second World War raged on, scientists raced to use atomic power in a bid to end the war, and a team of scientists at the University of Chicago was at the very center of the action. 

Fermi’s Team of Atomic Scientists

At the University of Chicago, a team of 48 men and one woman were presided over by the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. There, at Stagg Field, which hosted squash matches in the peacetime, stood an apparatus of wood, graphite, clumps of uranium, and cadmium control rods. 

Enrico Fermi, the Italian American scientist who led a team at the University of Chicago to create the first instance of atomic power.
Enrico Fermi had emigrated to the United States from Italy, and here he led a team of 49 scientists in creating the first instance of nuclear fission. (Image: Department of Energy/Public domain)

The team had a lot of uncertainty regarding the unprecedented experiment. What if it got out of control, or erupted in unpredictable ways?

It was on December 2, 1942, at 9:54 a.m., that Fermi ordered the withdrawal of the control rods, and the neutron counters suddenly came alive. Their ticking grew in intensity over the next hour, and the nuclear pile approached its critical state, producing a self-sustaining chain reaction. As the clock struck 3:25 p.m., the neutron counters ticked so fast that they were just buzzing, and Fermi announced that the reaction was self-sustaining.

This was the first time in human history that a controlled fission chain reaction had been produced. It was a small beginning, only producing enough power to power a light bulb before the control rods were reinserted and the reaction was shut down. It still led the way, however, and within three short years of continuous research, it was molded into the atomic bomb. 

Implications of the Chicago Pile

 The effects of this turning point were profound, ushering in the nuclear age—one which has been going on till today. It was the atom bomb, and its derivative nuclear weapons, that made the modern phenomenon of total and absolute war. It made it possible for mankind to possess the technology to destroy itself in a comprehensive way. 

Since then, the world has been in a state that has been overshadowed by the reality of this technology, from which there does not seem to be any going back. As much as it might be desired, there was no way to ‘uninvent’ the bomb, and this was the peril produced by modernity’s own progress. Despite the problems it caused, this turn also came with a vast amount of understanding in the world of physics. 

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Physics Before the Atomic Bomb

The series of discoveries made by the scientists in Chicago took some time to percolate to a broader audience. Nuclear fission challenged the earlier dominant model of classical mechanics, shaped by Sir Isaac Newton and his laws, which suggested a universe of regularity, predictability, and stability. 

Around the start of the 20th century, new discoveries were made. French researchers Marie Curie and Pierre Curie researched radioactivity, revealing atoms as not just stable orderly units, but ones that could emit subatomic particles and energy.

In 1900, German physicist Max Planck produced the quantum theory, which described what had until then been seen as solid matter as having qualities of waves, and radiation also having qualities of particles. This opened a new world of quantum mechanics on the atomic and subatomic scale, which dealt with probabilities, and not with the seeming certainties of classical mechanics.

Then, in 1905, Albert Einstein came up with the special theory of relativity, which forms the basis of modern physics, along with quantum mechanics. It was his famous equation, E=mc2, that showed that matter was a form of energy. 

It was in between the world wars, in the 1920s, that the heroic age of physics was born. By the time it would end with the bomb and nuclear power, scientists would be regarded with unprecedented awe. 

Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealand-born British physicist, established the nuclear model of the atom, and soon thereafter, different subatomic particles were identified—electrons, protons, and neutrons. It was discovered that the subatomic world acted according to the postulates of quantum mechanics.

Then, in 1927, German physicist Werner Heisenberg came up with his uncertainty principle, which postulated that the very act of measurement altered the object which was being observed, which further undermined the certainties earlier promised by classical physics.

Learn more about the splitting of the atom.

Forecasting the Power of the Atom

It was the visionary British writer H.G. Wells who, just before the outbreak of the First World War, predicted the atom bomb, himself coining the term. 

In 1914, Wells published a novel, The World Set Free, which predicted future events. 

Cover page of the first edition of H.G. Wells's novel, 'The World Set Free', which predicted the rise of atomic power.
H.G. Wells’s novel provided a gloomy foreboding of the future of atomic power, which he postulated would change the course of history altogether.
(Image: H.G.Wells/Public domain)

In this book, Wells predicted that by 1933 the atom would have been split, generating boundless reserves of energy that he called “worlds of limitless power”. He also postulated that world finance would be overturned, when gold would be created as a byproduct of this atomic split. In his story, different nations set about building devastating atom bombs. A faulty aspect of Well’s imagination was that atom bombs, once dropped, continued to explode for years, burrowing down into the earth.

But while every prediction was not right, Wells pointed out the paradox that war had become so efficient that it had become impossible to control.

To add to the problem described by Wells, politics and society lagged terribly behind mankind’s scientific and technical powers. In Wells’s story, a long-lasting atomic war breaks out in 1956, over 200 cities get bombed into oblivion, and countries continue to ravage each other till civilization is finally destroyed.

Wells’s story ends with survivors recognizing that a change of heart is what is needed to change the course of human history. Wells argues that individualism needs to be replaced by science and service, and humanity needs to be organized, not into separate states, but under a common World Republic ruled by regulation and administration of experts. Wells calls “Unity and Collectivism” the basis of a new social order based on science. The book also presents the bleak idea that it was nothing other than the violence of the atomic bombs that could release the previous world from its old and dull nature, an idea that brings to the forefront the alarming, yet intriguing, notion of progress through apocalypse.

Learn more about the Scientific Revolution.

Common Questions About the Atom

Q: What was Fermi’s team at the University of Chicago like?

The team assembled by Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago consisted of 48 men and one woman. On December 2, 1942, they assembled to create what would become the very first instance of controlled nuclear fission. There was a lot of skepticism in the room, but the creation of the self-sustaining reaction would then go on to become the basis of the atomic bomb.

Q: What was the position of physics before the atomic bomb was discovered?

Classical mechanics, which suggested a universe of regularity, predictability, and stability, was at the forefront of physics before nuclear fission came into the picture. Then, around the 20th century, radioactivity was discovered, which showed that atoms were not just stable orderly units, but ones that could emit subatomic particles and energy. Planck’s quantum theory then posited the existence of matter as both particles and waves, adding new dimensions to classical physics.

Q: What did H.G. Wells imagine for the atomic bomb?

The prolific author, H.G. Wells, predicted in his novel The World Set Free that the atom had been split, generating boundless reserves of energy—what he called “worlds of limitless power”. He also postulated that world finance would be overturned when gold would be created as a byproduct of this atomic split. In his story, different nations set about building devastating atom bombs. A faulty aspect of Well’s imagination was that atom bombs, once dropped, continued to explode for years, burrowing down into the earth.

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