Richard Rhodes' landmark history of the atomic bomb won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.Read more...
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
- Date: Sept 1995
From the book
'A Smell of Nuclear Powder'
Early in January 1939, nine months before the outbreak of the Second World War, a letter from Paris alerted physicists in the Soviet Union to the startling news that German radiochemists had discovered a fundamental new nuclear reaction. Bombarding uranium with neutrons, French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie wrote his Leningrad colleague Abram Fedorovich Ioffe, caused that heaviest of natural elements to disintegrate into two or more fragments that repelled each other with prodigious energy. It was fitting that the first report of a discovery that would challenge the dominant political system of the world should reach the Soviet Union from France, a nation to which Czarist Russia had looked for culture and technology. Joliot-Curie's letter to the grand old man of Russian physics "got a frenzied going-over" in a seminar at Ioffe's institute in Leningrad, a protégé of one of the participants reports. "The first communications about the discovery of fission...astounded us," Soviet physicist Georgi Flerov remembered in old age. "...There was a smell of nuclear powder in the air."
Reports in the British scientific journal Nature soon confirmed the German discovery and research on nuclear fission started up everywhere. The news fell on fertile ground in the Soviet Union. Russian interest in radioactivity extended back to the time of its discovery at the turn of the century. Vladimir I. Vernadski, a Russian mineralogist, told the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1910 that radioactivity opened up "new sources of atomic energy...exceeding by millions of times all the sources of energy that the human imagination has envisaged." Academy geologists located a rich vein of uranium ore in the Fergana Valley in Uzbekistan in 1910; a private company mined pitchblende there at Tiuia-Muiun ("Camel's Neck") until 1914. After the First World War, the Red Army seized the residues of the company's extraction of uranium and vanadium. The residues contained valuable radium, which transmutes naturally from uranium by radioactive decay. The Soviet radiochemist Vitali Grigorievich Khlopin extracted several grams of radium for medical use in 1921.
There were only about a thousand physicists in the world in 1895. Work in the new scientific discipline was centered in Western Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. A number of Russian scientists studied there. Abram Ioffe's career preparation included research in Germany with Nobel laureate Wilhelm Roentgen, the discoverer of X rays; Vernadski worked at the Curie Institute in Paris. The outstanding Viennese theoretical physicist Paul Ehrenfest taught in St. Petersburg for five years before the First World War. In 1918, in the midst of the Russian Revolution, Ioffe founded a new Institute of Physics and Technology in Petrograd. Despite difficult conditions -- the chemist N. N. Semenov describes "hunger and ruin everywhere, no instruments or equipment" as late as 1921 -- "Fiztekh" quickly became a national center for physics research. "The Institute was the most attractive place of employment for all the young scientists looking to contribute to the new physics," Soviet physicist Sergei E. Frish recalls. "...Ioffe was known for his up-to-date ideas and tolerant views. He willingly took on, as staff members, beginning physicists whom he...