Emc2 - History - Radioactivity and Nuclear Energy

Radioactivity and Nuclear Energy

It was quickly noted after the discovery of radioactivity in 1897, that the total energy due to radioactive processes is about one million times greater than that involved in any known molecular change. However, it raised the question where this energy is coming from. After eliminating the idea of absorption and emission of some sort of Lesagian ether particles, the existence of a huge amount of latent energy, stored within matter, was proposed by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy in 1903. Rutherford also suggested that this internal energy is stored within normal matter as well. He went on to speculate in 1904:

If it were ever found possible to control at will the rate of disintegration of the radio-elements, an enormous amount of energy could be obtained from a small quantity of matter.

Einstein's equation is in no way an explanation of the large energies released in radioactive decay (this comes from the powerful nuclear forces involved; forces that were still unknown in 1905). In any case, the enormous energy released from radioactive decay (which had been measured by Rutherford) was much more easily measured than the (still small) change in the gross mass of materials, as a result. Einstein's equation, by theory, can give these energies by measuring mass differences before and after reactions, but in practice, these mass differences in 1905 were still too small to be measured in bulk. Prior to this, the ease of measuring radioactive decay energies with a calorimeter was thought possibly likely to allow measurement of changes in mass difference, as a check on Einstein's equation itself. Einstein mentions in his 1905 paper that mass–energy equivalence might perhaps be tested with radioactive decay, which releases enough energy (the quantitative amount known roughly by 1905) to possibly be "weighed," when missing from the system (having been given off as heat). However, radioactivity seemed to proceed at its own unalterable (and quite slow, for radioactives known then) pace, and even when simple nuclear reactions became possible using proton bombardment, the idea that these great amounts of usable energy could be liberated at will with any practicality, proved difficult to substantiate. It had been used as the basis of much speculation, causing Rutherford himself to later reject his ideas of 1904; he was reported in 1933 to have said that: "Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of the atom is talking moonshine."

This situation changed dramatically in 1932 with the discovery of the neutron and its mass, allowing mass differences for single nuclides and their reactions to be calculated directly, and compared with the sum of masses for the particles that made up their composition. In 1933, the energy released from the reaction of lithium-7 plus protons giving rise to 2 alpha particles (as noted above by Rutherford), allowed Einstein's equation to be tested to an error of ± 0.5%. However, scientists still did not see such reactions as a source of power.

After the very public demonstration of huge energies released from nuclear fission after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the equation E = mc2 became directly linked in the public eye with the power and peril of nuclear weapons. The equation was featured as early as page 2 of the Smyth Report, the official 1945 release by the US government on the development of the atomic bomb, and by 1946 the equation was linked closely enough with Einstein's work that the cover of Time magazine prominently featured a picture of Einstein next to an image of a mushroom cloud emblazoned with the equation. Einstein himself had only a minor role in the Manhattan Project: he had cosigned a letter to the U.S. President in 1939 urging funding for research into atomic energy, warning that an atomic bomb was theoretically possible. The letter persuaded Roosevelt to devote a significant portion of the wartime budget to atomic research. Without a security clearance, Einstein's only scientific contribution was an analysis of an isotope separation method in theoretical terms. It was inconsequential, on account of Einstein not being given sufficient information (for security reasons) to fully work on the problem.

While E = mc2 is useful for understanding the amount of energy potentially released in a fission reaction, it was not strictly necessary to develop the weapon, once the fission process was known, and its energy measured at 200 MeV (which was directly possible, using a quantitative Geiger counter, at that time). As the physicist and Manhattan Project participant Robert Serber put it: "Somehow the popular notion took hold long ago that Einstein's theory of relativity, in particular his famous equation E = mc2, plays some essential role in the theory of fission. Albert Einstein had a part in alerting the United States government to the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but his theory of relativity is not required in discussing fission. The theory of fission is what physicists call a non-relativistic theory, meaning that relativistic effects are too small to affect the dynamics of the fission process significantly." However the association between E = mc2 and nuclear energy has since stuck, and because of this association, and its simple expression of the ideas of Albert Einstein himself, it has become "the world's most famous equation".

While Serber's view of the strict lack of need to use mass–energy equivalence in designing the atomic bomb is correct, it does not take into account the pivotal role which this relationship played in making the fundamental leap to the initial hypothesis that large atoms were energetically allowed to split into approximately equal parts (before this energy was in fact measured). In late 1938, while on the winter walk on which they solved the meaning of Hahn's experimental results and introduced the idea that would be called atomic fission, Lise Meitner and Otto Robert Frisch made direct use of Einstein's equation to help them understand the quantitative energetics of the reaction which overcame the "surface tension-like" forces holding the nucleus together, and allowed the fission fragments to separate to a configuration from which their charges could force them into an energetic "fission". To do this, they made use of "packing fraction", or nuclear binding energy values for elements, which Meitner had memorized. These, together with use of E = mc2 allowed them to realize on the spot that the basic fission process was energetically possible:

...We walked up and down in the snow, I on skis and she on foot. ...and gradually the idea took shape... explained by Bohr's idea that the nucleus is like a liquid drop; such a drop might elongate and divide itself... We knew there were strong forces that would resist, ..just as surface tension. But nuclei differed from ordinary drops. At this point we both sat down on a tree trunk and started to calculate on scraps of paper. ...the Uranium nucleus might indeed be a very wobbly, unstable drop, ready to divide itself... But, ...when the two drops separated they would be driven apart by electrical repulsion, about 200 MeV in all. Fortunately Lise Meitner remembered how to compute the masses of nuclei... and worked out that the two nuclei formed... would be lighter by about one-fifth the mass of a proton. Now whenever mass disappears energy is created, according to Einstein's formula E = mc2, and... the mass was just equivalent to 200 MeV; it all fitted!

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