Pro-Fission & Con-Fusion Reactions:
A Short Prolegomenous Discussion of Nuclear Technology and Safety
By R. D. Flavin
It’s about energy and its exploitation. We must begin and end there–it’s that simple. The prehistoric discovery of energy (Haarhoff 1962) and its historical re-discovery (Roland 1992) are topics which concern anthropologists and others interested in human cognitive and behavioral functions. It's acceptable to associate the intellectually irresistible 'release' of energy (technological applications) and the requisite of debated definitions with historians of science, however, its utilitarian uses have long fascinated engineers and sociologists and energy's military adaptations are the homicidal kitsch of students of war. The late Palaeolithic multiple inventions of the bow and arrow (White et al. 1989) may be regarded as a easy examples of the global genius of our species, yet eons passed before Sir Isaac Newton explained the mechanics of archery with his Third Law of Motion (Newton 1687): “for every action or force there is an equal, but opposite, reaction or force.” That hoary passage of time between the origin of archery and Newton’s explanation is akin to other technological advances and their descriptions, such as the period between the earliest usage of ‘fire’ and the initial and continued testing of nuclear weapons. Our earliest written narrative of the ‘gift’ of fire to mankind, Hesiod’s mid-eighth century BCE account of Prometheus the supra-terrestrial Titan (Evelyn-White 1914; ll. 54-59), is directly linked to the almost ineffably sad paraphrasing from the Hindu Sanskrit text, Bhagavad Gita, by Robert Oppenheimer (the "father of the atomic bomb") who uttered at the first nuclear explosion, "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," which some have interpreted as Shiva and others as Vishnu (Hijiya 2000; p. 123). Time slows, quickens, seems to stand still or skip about, yet we must better understand energy and its exploitation. There exists a possibility that our avoidance of understanding and acquiring of a balanced perspective concerning nuclear energy is exhausting our social unity and threatening our very survival and life-form existence. We are probably running out of time because we haven’t taken the time to consider our past, present and future.
Demokritos (fl. 460 BCE), Aristotle (384-322 BCE), Epicurus (341-270 BCE), and Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99-55 BCE).
The 5th cent. BCE pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Leucippus (var. Leukippo), seemingly had much to say about a lot of things, however only a single quote of his survives (Diels 1951; 67 B1): “Nothing happens at random, but everything from reason and by necessity.” Though his works are no longer extant, it’s believed that many of his ideas may be found in the writings of his greatest student, the Greco-Thracian philosopher, Democritus. Leucippus and Democritus are credited for inventing the term, atomos (Gk. a or “not” and tomos or “not divisible or not capable of being cut smaller”). “Atomism” inferred pluralism which challenged Zeno of Elea and his material monism of Eleaticism (Lloyd 1901) as a theory of natural philosophy arguing that everything in the universe is composed of very tiny particles, smaller than the human eye can see, and that these units or ‘atoms’ are separated by “vacua” or voids (Borrelli 1881; p. 163). Overviews of Atomism stress its speculative philosophical importance, as neither atoms or vacuums could have been directly observed at the time (e.g. Bury 1916; Benn 1911), yet I'll offer that the night sky might have served as an obvious example, with small points (stars and planets) separated by apparent emptiness. We are often inspired by nature (in passim Brown 1927), though some complicate matters contrary to the advice of Leucippus.
Benefitting immensely from two decades of collegiate loyalty and membership in Plato’s Academy, the 4th cent. BCE polymathic philosopher and teacher, Aristotle (Ackrill 1981), eventually established his own school and gymnasia, the Lyceum, and produced an astoundingly diverse body of treatises and works. Among his most insightfully profound and influential writings was his "Physics" (var. Physica or Physicae Auscultationes, Aristotle 1984; pp. 315-446), which in part attempted to revive, revise and improve upon the Atomism of Democritus (Benn 1882). However, his opinion on “infinite divisibility” reads as if it’s unfinished (Kenyon 1994; p. 85), his usage of the concept of "indivisibles" (Gk. elachista > L. minima naturatia) is brilliantly ambiguous (passim Melsen 1952; DHI 1973, pp. 128-130), yet by far the most significant and continuously debated contribution which Aristotle made to Atomism was his insistence that fat atoms should “fall” faster than skinny ones (O’Brien 1977).
Several decades later, the hedonist, skeptic and founder of a school of thought most often associated with pleasure and quality indulgences (Epicureanism), the Samian-born Athenian philosopher, Epicurus (Bailey 1929), addressed Aristotle’s controversy on the weight of atoms. In his Letter to Herodotus (contained in Book X of Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of Eminent Philosophers; Hicks 1972), Epicurus wrote: “When they are traveling through the void and meet with no resistance, the atoms must move with equal speed. Neither will heavy atoms travel more quickly than small and light ones, so long as nothing meets them, nor will small atoms travel more quickly than large ones, provided they always find a passage suitable to their size. and provided also that they meet with no obstruction.” Debate on the concept and arguing description and properties of atoms are justly credited benchmarks of intellectual accomplishment, yet the discussions about the nature of the “void” should be equally heralded as breakthrough theoretics (Inwood 1981).
Though Epicurus had many students, followers and commentators, no ancient writer can come close to the contributions to and the continuation of Epicurus’ Atomism (e.g. Vavilov 1948, Wardy 1988) as did the first century BCE Roman epic poet, Titus Lucretius Carus. Lucretius composed a hexameter Latin poem (Lucretius 1992), De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), which is well argued (passim Sedley 1998) to have been based on the first half of a thirty-seven volume Greek work by Epicurus, Peri phuseôs (“On Nature”), most of which was lost by the end of antiquity, yet archaeology has recovered portions of the work at Herculaneum, though some hold the work’s original title was different (i.e. Clay 1969). Following Epicurus and disagreeing with Aristotle’s assumption of atomic weight and motion, Lucretius wrote:
But, if perchance be any that believe the heavier bodies, as more swiftly borne plumb down the void, are able from above to strike the lighter, thus engendering blows able to cause those procreant motions, far from highways of true reason they retire. For whatsoever through the waters fall, or through thin air, must their descent, each after its weight- on this account, because both bulk of water and the subtle air by no means can retard each thing alike, but give more quick before the heavier weight; but contrariwise the empty void cannot, on any side, at any time, to aught oppose resistance, but will ever yield, true to its bent of nature. Wherefore all, with equal speed, though equal not in weight, must rush, borne downward through the still inane. Thus ne'er at all have heavier from above been swift to strike the lighter, gendering strokes which cause those divers motions, by whose means Nature transacts her work. And so I say, the atoms must a little swerve at times- but only the least, lest we should seem to feign motions oblique, and fact refute us there. For this we see forthwith is manifest: whatever the weight, it can't obliquely go, down on its headlong journey from above, at least so far as thou canst mark; but who is there can mark by sense that naught can swerve at all aside from off its road's straight line? (II 231; online here.)
Such ideas motivated (Diodorus Siculus, Diogenes) and angered (Cicero) Lucretius’ contemporaries. They were also, much later, utilized by Galileo, Newton, influenced corpuscular theory (Heidel 1911), and even served as the topic of the communism founder Karl Marx’s doctoral dissertation (Dixon et al. 1975; Vol. 1), “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” And ALL of this classical and classic writing was conjectural, non-demonstrable, unobservable and incredibly close to being accurate! Scarey and cool vie for the best description of these ancient writers of Atomism.
Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), John Dalton (1766-1844), Joseph Louis Joseph Gay-Lussac (1779-1850), and Amedeo Avegadro (1776-1856).
As paganism gave way to Christianity, cultural and pre-scientific interest in Atomism (along with many other theories and philosophies) faded from currency and were nearly forgotten. The Islamic legal scholar, Abu al-Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd commonly known as Averroës (1126-1198), briefly re-introduced discussion of Atomism through his comments on the works of Aristotle (Butterworth 1994, Fakhry 2001, Sonneborn 2006). After Europe awoke from its intellectual slumber with Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) and his collecting and preservation of old manuscripts, followed by the invention of printing, which greatly assisted the growing number of degree-granting universities, an important debate took place between René Descartes (1596-1650) and the Rev. Dr. Pierre Gassendi (College Royal of France, mathematics) concerning Atomism and its co-existence with Christian cosmology. Rev. Dr. Gassendi's first professional publication challenged Aristotle’s view of ‘motion’(Gassendi 1624) and established the course of his interests and work for the remainder of his life. Stating that “atoms are the primary form of matter" in The Syntagma Philosophicum (Gassendi 1658, I: 311), Gassendi concentrated on Epicurus with the composition of three major essays, the last (two?) published after his death (Gassendi 1668). He wrote (Sarasohn 1985, p. 366): “It may be supposed that the individual atoms received from God . . . the force requisite to moving and to importing motion to others . . . All this to the degree that he foresaw what would be necessary for every purpose he had destined them for." Atomic theory had survived from antiquity.
It took nearly a century and a half, but Gassendi’s Atomism ultimately began to be provided with proofs through the demonstrations of Prof. John Dalton (Manchester Academy, mathematics and natural philosophy) and, concurrently, Prof. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (Sorbonne, physics; later Jardin des Plantes, chemistry). Adapting the ideas of Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and others, Dalton’s studies of various gases and liquids furthered the understanding of atoms and their behavior (motion) and also advanced the first theoretical table of atomic weights (Dalton 1808-1827; Clarke 1903; passim Biswas 1969).
In a quasi-prescient essay (Dalton 1802; passim Hammond & Goslin 1933), Dalton anticipated the hypothesis which has become known as Gay-Lussac's law (aka the ‘Law of Combining Volumes’), which numerically explains gaseous volume ratio (Gay-Lussac 1809). The Italian scientist and early proponent of molarity within molecular theory, Count of Quaregna and Cerreto Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Avogadro (University of Turin, physics and chemistry) developed Gay-Lussac’s efforts and explained that particles (or 'molecules' [Fr. molécule < L. molecula < L. mōlēs or 'mass' < Grk. mōlos or 'exertion']) could consist of combinations of atoms (Avogadro 1811). Atomism was now very close to a mature and disciplined series of testable and supportable proofs.
Pierre-Louis Dulong (1785-1838). Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894), Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934), and Sir William Crookes (1832-1919).
A formulation was soon brought about from a collaboration between Prof. Pierre Louis Dulong (École Polytechnique, physics) and his academic department chair predecessor, Prof. Alexis Thérèse Petit, known as Dulong and Petit’s Law, which explained how molecules in heated metals move at very high temperatures with inverse proportionality (Dulong and Petite 1819). Though many others were working, publishing, and generally increasing our understanding of small particles (atoms and molecules) and their behavior (motion or vibration), and with the given that their names and accomplishments are too numerous to mention in this article, any short history must include the remarkably diverse and fundamental results introduced by the German scientist and inventor, Prof. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (University of Karlsruhe, physics).
Prof. Hertz’s many contributions had dazzling consequences in several fields of study, among these were his investigation of material elastic properties, primary work in the field of contact mechanics, and he made a transmitting antenna which produced radio-waves subsequently described as the UHF range or band. In a historic positive review of a public lecture, Hertz’s ideas were unleashed to the English-speaking world by Prof. George Francis FitzGerald (Trinity College, natural and experimental philosophy) during FitzGerald's 1888 presidential address to the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (RS et al. 1904, p. 154). Hertz’s publication on electromagnetic radiation (Hertz 1888) soon after motivated such scientific innovators as Sir Joseph John Thomson (Cambridge, Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics) with his experiments on cathode rays which directly resulted in the identification of the electron, and Guglielmo Marconi (Accademia d'Italia, President), who attended Hertz's 1888 lecture and inspired his successful transmittion of a radio signal in 1895 (Thomson 1897; Preece 1897, p. 892). Simply put, Hertz had a profound influence on science in general and specifically helped us to move nearer to a fully modern account and application of atomic theory.
The discoveries and innovations continued with a 1895 application of photography proving the existence of so-called x-rays by the German physicist Prof. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (University of Würzburg, physics), as well as an often overlooked 1896 version of the experiment involving uranium salts by the French engineer, Prof. Antoine Henri Becquerel, (Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, physics), which was noticed and explored in 1898 by Prof. Marie Sklodowska Curie (Sorbonne, physics; later, Pasteur Institute, radiation). Her husband, Prof. Pierre Curie (Paris Municipal School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry at the Sorbonne, physics), arranged for the usage of a laboratory through his department for his wife to study Becquerel's results. Investigating uraninite or 'pitchblende' and other forms and components of uranium, the Curies deduced that the recorded emissions could be evidence for an atomic property of an element (uranium). Citing work in “spontaneous radioactivity” and “radiation phenomena,” Becquerel and the Curies were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1903, with Becquerel being given half of the financial prize and Pierre and Marie each receiving quarter shares. It was our first direct experience with a the basic structure of an atom.
Also in 1903, the chemist and academic, Sir William Crookes, O.M., LL.D., P.Sc., F.R.S., separated protactinium from uranium and made important observations on the motion and scintillation (passim Henriksen & Baarli 1957) of decaying uranium. Crookes had previously discovered thallium in 1861 (used as a plot device in Agatha Christie’s 1962 mystery novel, The Pale Horse, and was reportedly a favorite poison of the late Iraqi dictator, Pres. Saddam Hussein), investigated x-rays and identified an electron (passim DeKosky 1976, James 1984), made use of vacuum tubes and cathode rays (passim Crookes 1914), and helped to significantly prepare science for its next level of understanding energy. Atomism had passed its philosophical and abstract beginnings with the exploitation of radioactivity and it was the predawn of the Nuclear Age.
Albert Einstein (1879–1955), early ms. E=MC2 formula, Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), and J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967).
Once upon a non-spatial continuum, a German-born and Swiss-naturalized government employee in the Bern cantonal bureau of the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property (i.e. Swiss patent office) published several scientific papers which ...changed our understanding of the universe and how we regard and interpret its various properties. The twenty-six year old patent clerk published four papers in 1905, all uniquely profound, and for which as a very rare occurrence some have chosen to term the period a Annus Mirabilis or “Year of the Miraculous.” The science presented in two of those four papers earned the author a Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921. Chronologically, the publications assisted in his employment competence appraisal and he received a promotion the next year from a third-class to a second-class clerk. Reader reaction to his papers? True profundity takes a bit for proper reaction. It was a “Year of Wonders,” on that all agree.
[Note: Previously, the expression Annus Mirabilis was used by the English poet, John Dryden, as a title for a work of decasyllabic quatrains about the plague, London’s Great Fire, and other matters (Dyrden 1667). Anno Domini 1666 excited some borderline paranoids as the Christian year as it contains the infamous “number of the beast” mentioned in the Book of Revelation 13:18. Also, the year 1666 when written in Roman-style numerals is the only Roman number which uses all the numerals from large to little (1666 < MDCLXVI < mille, quingenti, centum, quinquaginta, decem, quinque, unus). A better comparison with the Swiss patent clerk, however, would be with Sir Isaac Newton (e.g. Palter 1970, Westfall 1980), who in 1666 achieved remarkable insights into optics, motion, calculus and gravity (with the quasi-apocryphal falling apple incident).]
The four papers published in the prestigious German journal, Annalen der Physik, concerned: 1) an extension of previous work by Max Planck which approached the properties of light as energy quanta and introduced the photoelectric effect, 2) a furthering of a mathematical model proposed by the botanist, Robert Brown, of the random movement of small particles which assisted in proving the existence of atoms and molecules, 3) introduced the “Special Theory of Relativity,” based in part on James C. Maxwell’s equations for electrodynamics, and argued the speed of light is constant and ‘time’ is relative, and 4) an original equation explaining potential kinetic energy which demonstrates that any ‘energy’ is equal to a derivative mass converted with the released energy being approximately twice that of the original mass or E=MC2 (Einstein 1987).
Also, besides personal obligations as husband and father, the civil servant finished his academic thesis for a Ph.D. degree (or Doctoral Dissertation) for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at the end of April 1905, which was sent off in July and quickly accepted by his examiners. It was recognized as significant and published the next year (Einstein 1906). Prof. Albert Einstein (University of Berlin, physics; later, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton) was, along with Darwin, a defining influence on our practice of 'modern' science. Hypothesis and model, test, test, test and more testing. Though Einstein’s contributions were innovative, revolutionary and eternally appreciated, science is a cooperative discipline and others were busy furthering our understanding of energy and, discretely, moving closer to nuclear exploitation.
In 1913, a young Danish physicist studying with Prof. Ernest Rutherford of the University of Manchester suggested a model for the structure of atoms which argued that an electron could produce a photon or “light quantum” eventually becoming the foundation for quantum theory (Bohr 1913). The physicist, Prof. Niels Henrik David Bohr (University of Copenhagen, physics), went on to form an "Institute of Theoretical Physics" at his university that became a mandatory place over the next two decades for scientists to visit, learn at and engage in open and productive discussions.
A twenty-five year old Italian physicist employed as a Lecturer with the University of Florence, in 1926, ingeniously offered a formula improving upon work done the previous year by Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, Jr. of the University of Hamburg on electron observations in various states known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle (passim Hoddeson & Baym 1980). And, moving science forward, Prof. Enrico Fermi (University of Rome, physics; later, University of Chicago) correctly identified the statistical properties of certain sub-atomic particles which gave rise to a mathematical means to extend the discovery of the fundemental structural components of nature and its wonderous blendings of matter and energy (Hall 1928; Oppenheimer 1928).
Science means many things to different people – a debate analogous to fighting over what’s just a hobby, a dilettantish pursuit or an ordered formulaic system which may be repeatedly re-examined for possible mistakes and which allows for corrections. Yeah for science! Mathematics is the only ‘exact’ science, with astronomy a closely related field (Neugebauer 1969; passim Flavin 2007), and such fledgling disciplines as anthropology and psychology must remain beholden to the exactitude of math. George Orwell responsibly reminded us about how the public regards number (¬2+2=5 ⇔ 2+2=4) in his classic dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four. The years preceding Einstein were adventures of heroic commitment and consensual ‘truths’, however, as part of its larger self-definition ‘science’ depends upon works contributed by many, contributed often, examined, debated and re-examined. Math experienced statistical sentiency during the 1920s and 1930s and it was due to the efforts of many.
The 1932 experiments of John Douglas Cockford and Ernest T. S. Walton which collided protons and converted mass into energy had the distinction of transforming ‘fission’ from theory to practice and also confirming Einstein’s earlier energy as mass converted equation (Cockcroft & Walton 1930, 1932a, 1932b). Some critics discounted the results, couldn’t envision an exploitation of atomic energy, and regarded such work as classroom chemistry. It didn’t take long to silence the nay-sayers and demonstrate the potential of atomic power. Subsequently, the next events involving the splitting of the atom are too important to attempt a proper account in several sentences and readers are encouraged to consult any of the popular histories available which cover the origin of the Atomic Age (e.g. Cirincione 2007, Herrera 2006).
As the world readied itself for the tragedy of war, science continued with original research, publishing, discussion, all the while anticipating possible engineering applications. A leading scientist, enthusiastic teacher, and competent administrator who is most often referred to and associated with this period is Prof. John Robert Oppenheimer (University of California, Berkeley, physics; later, Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton). Oppenheimer had begun speculation on the existence of ‘Black Holes’ (Oppenheimer & Volkoff 1939), but global politics intervened and his talents were soon used away from the Berkeley campus. Another example of an empty classroom is Prof. Enrico Fermi, who'd won the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1938, yet because of the evil afoot in Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, he and many of his colleagues left their academic appointments and immigrated to America. Continuing at Columbia University, Fermi worked on fission experiments before transferring to the University of Chicago , where he soon achieved the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction.
On August 2, 1939, Einstein accessed the current advances in science with a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future (Lapp 1964, Szilard 1978).” Roosevelt listened, America became pro-fission, and Fermi and Oppenheimer were recruited by the American government and the potentially deadliest and most destructive program in history was begun. The immediate goal was the creation of an atomic bomb before any other nation or government and an exploitation of energy on an unprecedented level. The human race had started a nuclear arms race in a contest which was quickly understood to extend far beyond winners and losers. There would be irreparable consequences for everyone and everything.
End of Part One
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Gita is often ‘dated’ to ca. 3000 BCE with claims of an ancient and accurate oral tradition. This is simply too fantastic. Discussions abound
concerning the dates of composition for the Hebrew Bible and the individual works of the Greek language New Testament. Similar examinations
have occurred with the Fall of Troy (ca. 1250 BCE) and the life of Homer (fl. 800 BCE), and also the early Irish epic, The Tain, with its mentions of
Iron Age elements, but its date of writing was likely post-second or third century CE. The recent efforts of Dr. Steve Farmer (Comparative History),
Prof. Richard Sproat (University of Illinois, Computational Linguistics), and Prof. Michael Witzel (Harvard, Wales Professor of Sanskrit) with their
dismissal of the Indus Valley symbols as a ‘script’ is ingenious, inspiring, though I suspect incomplete, as the approximately 700+ symbols
certainly allow theoretical 'room' for a script, a numerical system, as well as a series of personal identification marks or proto-writing (Farmer et al.
2004; “The Collapse of the Indus-Script: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization.” EJVS 11-2 (13 Dec. 2004): 19-57. Online PDF here). The
preposterous date for the Gita seems the result of a nationalistic agenda, as the introduction of the Brāhmī script ca.350 BCE establishes writing in
the Indian sub-continent with confidence. There were probably oral components, but ...three thousand years? Again, this is simply too fantastic.]
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contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi,”
(in English) “All forces occur in pairs, and these two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction,” with various paraphrases (e.g. “Every
action produces a reaction").
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