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Our model of nuclear fission pictured as a hill


Bohr in America: nuclear fission (Part 2)
John Wheeler Scientist
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That makes- reminds me- a digression- of how Bohr had discovered, back in his early days working with Rutherford, in 1913 to 1914, the Atomic Model. And he hadn't published it. And he's gone back to Copenhagen, he'd married, and he kept getting letters from Rutherford- Bohr, publish that paper of yours. And Bohr wrote back saying-It's no good writing a paper just on hydrogen, nobody will believe a story about an atom with one electron unless I could explain helium, an atom with two electrons, and all the other atoms and all the molecules. And Rutherford wrote back- Bohr, you explain hydrogen and you explain helium and everybody will believe all the rest. Well, of course, in the end, he couldn't even explain helium, the quantum theory at that point hadn't reached the stage of doing it. But he published. At any rate, Frisch had the result, this word quickly came out, the newspapers got it. Such a shame that Rutherford, who'd done so much to pioneer the nuclear age, should have died at about this time, because it was a medical blunder. He would have been the great man of the field. I recall what the French scientist- who was it that discovered radioactivity? Becquerel Becquerel, what his son said about Rutherford. The son had gone to London shortly after the discovery of radioactivity and met Rutherford there, who was then just a very young man. Ce jeune homme divine tout. This young man understands everything. At any rate, Bohr had been a disciple of Rutherford and he was hell bent to understand fission. And I worked in nuclear physics, so that we found ourselves discussing the fission, day after day. Sometimes he'd come to my office, sometimes I'd go to his office, and they were only a hundred feet apart. Sometimes when he wrote on the board, he pushed so hard on the crayon that the crayon cracked and fell on the floor. The janitor would scold him, because the character of the people was not what mattered to the janitor, the beauty of the building, and it was a beautiful building. So, from then on, when Bohr left the office, he would carefully lift the rug and kick the chalk under the rug so as not to be scolded by the janitor. But he'd sometimes come to my office, I'd go sometimes to his. And sometimes there'd be in my office, Ray Bowers, who was designing the house that he was going to build for us; Janette and I had decided that we ought to have a home for ourselves in Princeton. So this was two Bs, the struggle of two Bs, Bowers and Bohr, that made life interesting. But two months to the day, after Bohr's arrival, that is on March 16th, 1939, we were gathered in the office that had belonged to Einstein, that now belonged to Wigner. There was Wigner and Teller and Bohr, myself. And maybe two or three others. Szilard was there? I can't recall whether Szilard was there. We were discussing one of the projects for a bomb. And I can remember Bohr's phrase; Yes, a bomb could be made, but it would take the entire efforts of a country to make it. Well, of course, in the end, it took the efforts of three countries, Britain, Canada and the United States, to do it.

John Wheeler, one of the world's most influential physicists, is best known for coining the term 'black holes', for his seminal contributions to the theories of quantum gravity and nuclear fission, as well as for his mind-stretching theories and writings on time, space and gravity.

Listeners: Ken Ford

Ken Ford took his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1953 and worked with Wheeler on a number of research projects, including research for the Hydrogen bomb. He was Professor of Physics at the University of California and Director of the American Institute of Physicists. He collaborated with John Wheeler in the writing of Wheeler's autobiography, 'Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics' (1998).

Duration: 5 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008