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12-02   Print  E-mail
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At 3:25 P.M. on December 2, 1942, the AtomicAge began inside an enormous tent on a squash court under the stands of the University of Chicago's Stagg Field. There, scientists headed by Enrico Fermi engineered the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction. The result, sustainable nuclear energy, led to creation of the atomic bomb and nuclear power plants--two of the twentieth century's most powerful and controversial achievements.

Four years earlier the Italian scientist received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Planning to defect, Fermi attended the award ceremonies in Stockholm with his wife and children. Like so many intellectuals who left fascist Europe, Fermi came to the United States and worked at Columbia University.
At a physics conference in the U.S., Nobel Prize wining physicist Niels Bohr told Fermi about the findings of Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Frisch. Meitner worked in Germany with physicists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann until fleeing to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution. From her work in Germany, Meitner knew the nucleus of uranium-235 splits (fission) into two lighter nuclei when bombarded by a neutron. Interestingly, the sum of the particles derived from fission are not equal in mass to the original nucleus. During a visit with her nephew, Meitner speculated that release of energy--energy a hundred million times greater than normally released in the chemical reaction between two atoms--accounted for the difference. Returning to his lab, Frisch explained the theory to Bohr.


 

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