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Monday, 01 August 2016 10:48

The new york times: Otto Hahn, the Nobel-Winning Chemist

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“A new phenomenon in physics” that could generate 200 million volts of energy was reported in a wire service dispatch on Page 2 of The New York Times on Jan. 29, 1939. Otto Hahn, the paper reported, had discovered that the uranium atom could be split, a conclusion, he acknowledged, that “violated all previous experience in the field of nuclear physics.”

But the breathtaking disclosure was delivered with a major caveat: The practical application of the discovery, if any, would take 25 years.

That prediction, as it turned out, was off by a long shot. Less than seven years later, as a direct result of Hahn’s discovery, the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.

When Hahn died in Germany on July 28, 1968, his Times obituary was featured on Page 1. By then, the significance of the Nobel Prize-winning chemist’s original finding was well established: He had, the article said, “discovered that the atom could be split, paving the way for the nuclear bomb” in a “discovery that changed the course of 20th-century history.”

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The equipment used by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. CreditHulton Archive/Getty Images

Hahn made his discovery in his laboratory at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, working with his assistant, Fritz Strassmann. (Strassman’s predecessor, Lise Meitner, had been fired by the institute because she was Jewish. Hahn said after the war that he had opposed Nazism.)

But the process of splitting the uranium-235 atom would not be labeled nuclear fission until later, and Hahn himself, as a chemist rather than a physicist, initially described his discovery in the most equivocal terms.

By May 1940, it had become clear why scientists were reluctant to discuss the atom-splitting and the energy it released — a development they “regarded as ushering in the long dreamed of age of atomic power, and, therefore, as one of the greatest if not the greatest discovery in modern science,” the reporter William Laurence wrote in The Times.

The main reason they were silent, Laurence explained, was “the tremendous implications this discovery bears on the possible outcome of the European war,” which by then had already begun.

Hahn later said that he had never believed that his discovery would have military implications. “I am a scientist,” he said, “and like all scientists am interested only in discovery and not application.”

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