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  • Annika Santhanam

Oppenheimer’s Impact: The Science and History of the Atomic Bomb

Hollywood and the media has been abuzz with the recent release of Oppenheimer, a film by famous director Christopher Nolan that covers the life and work of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist who pioneered the creation of the atomic bomb used by the United States in World War II.

Although this was such a big part of history, the process and science behind the creation of the atomic bomb is not well-known, though ‘Oppenheimer’ has brought light to a lot of that information. Let’s take a look at the science behind this historic development.

Background of the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was the name for the atomic bomb program established in 1942. A research facility was set up in Los Alamos, Mexico - the site was designed almost like a mini town, allowing the researchers who worked there to bring along and live with their families on the site. This design was created in order to ensure ultimate confidentiality of the information and development of the bomb.

On July 16, 1945, the Trinity test of the very first atomic bomb was performed successfully, creating a blast equivalent in strength to 21 kilotons of TNT. Only a few weeks later, on August 6th, the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and on August 9th, the bomb on Nagasaki was dropped.

The Science Behind the Atomic Bomb

The closure of World War II would not be possible without years worth of research and development surrounding the physics of the design.

In the 1930s, the first studies on the process of fission were conducted. Nuclear fission involves splitting an atom in half: in 1933, an experiment determined that self-sustaining fission chain reactions could be developed. In 1934, it was discovered that the element uranium could be used to do so. Since the process of fission releases a high amount of energy, a chain fission reaction compounds the amount of energy released significantly.

These discoveries occurred in Europe, but once they reached scientist Leo Szilard in 1939, living in the United States at the time, they spelled an imminent warning of growing German power in the realm of nuclear weapons development.

Over the next few years and during the Manhattan Project, both the isotopes uranium-235 and plutonium-239 were utilized in order to create fission bombs. Fission occurs when a neutron is fired into the nucleus of the isotope, splitting it and releasing energy. The chain reaction mentioned earlier occurs when more neutrons are produced during this split, striking nearby isotope nuclei and causing further fission reactions, releasing a huge amount of energy.

The first bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a gun-type design: two uranium-235 nuclei were fired into each other, causing a fission reaction and compounding in a chain reaction. The second bomb was implosion-based using plutonium-239. With standard bombs, an increase of pressure was created to concentrate the plutonium enough for it to reach critical mass and start firing neutrons, also causing the chain reaction to release enough energy.

Impact of Nuclear Weaponry

After the detonation of both bombs, Japan officially surrendered World War II, but over 200,000 lives were lost in the detonation, and even more in subsequent radiation poisoning from the bombs. Though a large-scale detonation didn’t occur after the war, world powers have been consistently on edge when it comes to managing each other’s nuclear weaponry. With 13,000 nuclear weapons globally, America and Russia currently hold 90% of that stockpile, according to Sky News.

Though nuclear energy has largely been used for weaponry in the past decades, recently initiatives in using it as a source of alternative clean energy have been running strong. Several countries are already utilizing nuclear energy efficiently in place of fossil fuels, and they hope to find a future in which nuclear energy plays a larger role in moving the world into a more sustainable culture.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for more articles!


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