The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

Part I: Physics Background, 1919-1939

Early American Work on Fission

American scientists became active participants in attempts to confirm and extend Hahn's and Strassmann's results, which dominated nuclear physics in 1939. Bohr and John A. Wheeler advanced the theory of fission in important theoretical work done at Princeton University, while Fermi and Szilard collaborated with Walter H. Zinn and Herbert L. Anderson at Columbia University in investigating the possibility of producing a nuclear chain reaction. Given that uranium emitted neutrons (usually two) when it fissioned, the question became whether or not a chain reaction in uranium was possible, and, if so, in which of the three isotopes of the rare metal it was most likely to occur. By March 1940 John R. Dunning and his colleagues at Columbia University, collaborating with Alfred Nier of the University of Minnesota, had demonstrated conclusively that uranium-235, present in only 1 in 140 parts of natural uranium, was the isotope that fissioned with slow neutrons, not the more abundant uranium-238 as Fermi had guessed. This finding was important, for it meant that a chain reaction using the slightly lighter uranium-235 was possible, but only if the isotope could be separated from the uranium-238 and concentrated into a critical mass, a process that posed serious problems. Fermi continued to try to achieve a chain reaction using large amounts of natural uranium in a pile formation. Dunning's and Nier's demonstration promised nuclear power but not necessarily a bomb. It was already known that a bomb would require fission by fast neutrons; a chain reaction using slow neutrons might not proceed very far before the metal would blow itself apart, causing little, if any, damage. Uranium-238 fissioned with fast neutrons but could not sustain a chain reaction because it required neutrons with higher energy. The crucial question was whether uranium-235 could fission with fast neutrons in a chain-reacting manner, but without enriched samples of uranium-235, scientists could not perform the necessary experiments.