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Announcement of the Atomic Age

On this campus, January 26, 1939, Nobel Laureate Niels Bohr reported the splitting of the uranium nucleus with the release of two hundred million electron volts of energy, thus heralding the beginning of the atomic age. This announcement took place in the Hall of Government, Room 209, at the Fifth Washington Conference on Theoretical Physics organized by GWU Professors George Gamow and Edward Teller and jointly sponsored by the Carnegie Institution and the George Washington University.

Although the subject of the Fifth Conference was low-temperature physics and superconductivity, the importance of such a revolutionary event could not be ignored. Bohr said that his colleagues, Otto Robert Frisch and Lise Meitner in Copenhagen experimentally verified a suggestion of Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann. Nuclear fission by the bombardment of uranium and neutrons had been observed. From his work on the structure and excitation of nuclei, Bohr realized that a neutron-induced chain reaction of uranium-235 was possible. Physicist Leo Szilard at Columbia University had come to the same conclusion.

Being concerned about developments in Germany, Szilard pressed Bohr and his physics colleagues into secrecy and helped convince Albert Einstein to write President Roosevelt of the danger implied and the necessity for action. Bohr and Teller joined the war effort at Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. The world was not made aware of the atomic age until 1945, when an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki. With the power of such mass destruction also came the promise of long-lasting energy for human activity. In 1950 Bohr wrote, “…widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes an increased responsibility on individuals and nations.”


The George Washington
University
Washington DC
2002
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