Monday, June 27, 2005

Readings for a New Opera 3

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 274-275:

The following Saturday Oppenheimer discussed the discovery [of fission] in a letter to a friend at Caltech, outlining all the experiments [Luis] Alvarez and others had accomplished during the week and speculating on applications:

"The U business is unbelievable. We first saw it in the papers, wired for more dope, and have had a lot of reports since... In how many ways does the U come apart? At random, as one might guess, or only in certain ways? And most of all, are there many neutrons that come off during the splitting, or from the excited pieces? If there are, then a 10 cm cube of U deuteride (one would need the D [deuterium, heavy hydrogen] to slow them without capture) should be quite something. What do you think? It is I think exciting, not in the rare way of positrons and mesotrons, but in a good honest practical way."

The next day, in a letter to George Uhlenbeck at Columbia, "quite something" became "might very well blow itself to hell." One of Oppenheimer's students, the American theoretical physicist Philip Morrison, recalls that "when fission was discovered, within perhaps a week there was on the blackboard in Robert Oppeneimer's office a drawing -- a very bad, an execrable drawing--of a bomb."

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