Hello again, my cowering timorous chums! How was the Queen's speech for you? Come on now, you can come out from under the bed, the beardies haven't arrived yet, and here's Uncle Clint to take your mind off it with an exciting tale from days of yore. As promised, here's the thrilling history of the birth of the atomic bomb. Woo! In August of 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt received a letter from a group of prominent scientists, including one Mr A. Einstein, informing him of plans in Nazi-ruled Germany to purify uranium-235, with the intent to build an atomic bomb. Soon afterward, the U.S. Government began pouring cold hard cash into the highly classified 'Manhattan Project', beginning the initial research into a weapon that would ultimately end a war in a day at the cost of two major civilian centres. Between 1939 and 1945, the United States spent over two billion dollars creating a working formula for the refinement of uranium and building a practical atomic bomb, under the oversight of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer's name will now be forever synonymous with the A-bomb, but then he was a peculiar figure in the field, known for his interests in Eastern philosophy and poetry. In theory there were two types of atomic explosion possible: fusion and fission reaction. Fusion was later utilised in the production of the hydrogen bomb, but that's a whole new order of fun that we'll get to another time.
The A-bomb used fission (here's the science bit) which occurs when the central part of an atom, the nucleus, breaks up into two equal fragments. Once a neutron breaks up the uranium atom, the fragments release other neutrons that break-up more atoms and so on. All right, I don't really get that either, but as a couple of hundred thousand dead Japanese won't testify, it works.
By the summer of 1942 the theory was pretty much in place. In Le Conte Hall, Berkley, the principal minds behind the development of the bomb, including Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Robert Serber, Hans Bethe, Emil Konopinski, Richard Tolman and Enrico Fermi met to thrash out the fundamental premises behind the deployment of the weapon. The British (code-named) MAUD report had already claimed that a small amount of uranium-235 could produce an explosion equivalent to that of several thousand tons of TNT. At the time, the single useful benchmark was the explosion of five hundred tons of TNT in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1917, which flattened two thousand square miles and killed approximately 1,600 people.
One of the more famous discussions of the Berkley debate was the possibility that a fission reaction might trigger enough heat to set alight the nitrogen in the earth's atmosphere, suggested initially by Teller. This hypothesis has the smell of an urban legend, but reports suggest that the question may have been seriously debated right up to the point at which the Trinity test bomb exploded in 1945.
Robert Serber treated the matter lightly, saying: "Bethe went off in his usual way, put in the numbers, and showed it couldn't happen. It was a question that had to be answered, but it never was anything, it was a question only for a few hours."
Hans Bethe himself, however, paints a different picture. "...[We] made some very quick estimates which showed that [igniting the atmosphere] was essentially impossible....[We] thought that it was so drastic a possibility that we shouldn't rely on our physical intuition or on the few formulae which we wrote down in one day on a few pieces of paper."
Oppenheimer's direct superior, Arthur Compton, was also concerned, threatening to put an end to the project unless it could be conclusively proved that the earth would be (relatively) safe. "Better to be a slave under the Nazi heel," he is quoted as saying, "than to draw down the final curtain on humanity."
The risk was apparently explored by the team until irrefutable proof was obtained by giving it a crack. Go science.
And it's that crack that we'll come to next time, in a thrilling episode in which the fine people of Los Alamos are scared shitless and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki become famous forever. Until then Home Defendants, this is Clint Panzerdivision telling you it's time for happy sleep.