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On October 16, 2021, four of us continued our discussion of Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. The fission of the uranium atom prompted two refugees, Szilard and Wigner, to see another refugee, Einstein, who was summering on Long Island, months before the Germans invaded Poland in 1939. When they showed the famous physicist the amount of energy released in the Hahn and Strassmann experiment, Einstein exclaimed, “I never thought of that!” and drafted the letter to alert the president.
But how do you bring a letter to the attention of a president with all the correspondence the White House receives every day? They enlisted the aid of Alexander Sachs, a Russian emigre, who advised Roosevelt on the economics of the New Deal. Sachs arranged to meet with the President who within a few minutes concluded, “What you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” Here was a president who understood and respected science. Roosevelt tasked Harry Hopkins and Vannevar Bush to determine the weapons potential of uranium.
Otto Frisch accepted an invitation to lecture at the University of Birmingham. He made his move during the German invasion of the Low Countries and France and before the Germans dropped bombs during the Battle of Britain. There Frisch performed the cross-section analysis of the uranium visualizing the atomic nucleus as a glass window and the neutron as a ball thrown at it. There is a small probability that the ball could hit a specific location to break the glass. With more windows, the probability of a ball breaking a window approaches certainty. With this analytic tool, Frisch found the critical mass for an explosion required several tons of unrefined uranium. However, with highly enriched uranium-235, the critical mass would be about a kilogram. Two half-spheres of uranium-235, each weighing a half kilogram, slapped together would be enough to explode with a force of 24 kilotons of TNT. No bomb shelter could withstand the blast, and the radioactive fallout would lethally irradiate survivors. Belligerents, using such weapons, would be assured of mutual destruction. Frisch gave his analysis to the British MAUD Committee.
The MAUD report was shared with the American committee who immediately understood it and brought it to the attention of the President. Roosevelt authorized the project, codename Manhattan Engineering District, to make an atomic bomb, just days before the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States to enter the global war.
The next step was to procure and enriched uranium for this project. Fortuitously, the Joliot-Curies convinced the Belgium government, before it fell to the Germans, to send 1650 tons of pitchblende containing 65% uranium to a warehouse in Staten Island. Nevertheless, the sustained release of neutrons to trigger a chain reaction was an unproven concept. Physicist Arthur Compton argued for and was authorized to do the experiments at his school, the University of Chicago. He trusted Fermi would not make Chicago a Chernobyl, where under Stagg Stadium Fermi built a graphite pile layered with enriched uranium. As the cadmium control rods were raised, the gauges of the neutron detector shot up proving the concept just as the Germans were losing the Battle of Stalingrad.
The Manhattan Project continued its work under the leadership of Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves. They minimized the organizational learning disabilities that slowed the German and Japanese atomic programs. The Axis powers estimated the United States did not have the capacity to purify enough uranium-235 to make a bomb. Would the Axis powers be so belligerent if they knew more about American resolve along with its brainpower boosted by refugees and its ability to invent and produce?
Register to read for Flash Fiction: Writers on the Edge presented by Friends of the Edgewater Library
About this event
The Friends of the Edgewater Library in conjunction with the Edgewater Branch Library are pleased to present our first Open Mic event - Flash Fiction: Writers on the Edge.
Writers are invited to join us and read their original flash fiction of 500 or fewer words. Please review the Participants' Guideline on our website at www.foelchicago.org before signing up to read at this event.
Thank you for sharing your work with us and those in attendance at our event!
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