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TL· Uranium People. By Leona Marshall Libby. New York: Crane Russak & Co., 1979. Pp. x+341. $15.95. The English novelist Leonard Hartley once wrote that "the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there." This is certainly true of the events, attitudes, and relationships comprising the Manhattan Project as recalled by Leona Marshall Libby in her book TL· Uranium People. Nowadays, in the wake of the malfunctioning of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor, a somewhat hysterical public, aroused by press and television coverage inherently hostile to the nuclear industry, has forced the federal government through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to carry out an intense scrutiny of existing nuclear power plants, to halt the construction of new ones, and generally to begin to look askance at proposals to build new particle accelerators. It seems that the United States is once again in the middle of one of those periods when the relationship between science and technology, particularly nuclear energy R & D, and the public through the federal government, is not serene, to say the least. TL· Uranium People is a personal recollection of some of the key events that led to this situation, in particular of the achievement of the first nuclear chain reaction at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. The author, the only woman directly involved in this project, was one of Enrico Fermi's assistants, and she therefore has a uniquely personal view of this great achievement, even ifher recollections are of events seen through a mist of some 40 years. The events leading up to the achievement of the chain reaction are well known and extensively documented. In 1938 Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, working at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in Berlin, irradiated uranium (atomic number 92) with neutrons and produced barium (atomic number 56). Shortly thereafter, Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch concluded that the uranium had split or fissioned into two pieces, barium and also krypton (atomic number 36) in the reaction: 92u + o'n —» 56Ba + 36Kr. On estimating the mass numbers of the (as yet unknown) isotopes involved, Meitner and Frisch calculated the mass defect (the energy released in the reaction) to be about 200 mev. Frisch then quickly carried out an experiment to detect the fission fragments and confirmed the calculation. Similar experiments were performed almost immediately after this by other groups, among them Enrico Fermi, John Dunning, and Herbert Anderson at Columbia University. That the fission fragments might also contain sufficient surplus energy to each emit a neutron, hence triggering a growing chain reaction, also occurred to the various groups cognizant of the HahnStrassman results. In fact, Leo Szilard had conceived of the chain reaction in 1933. When informed by Eugene Wigner of the Hahn-Strassman observation, he went to Columbia University to work with Fermi. In addition, Szilard forwarded a letter, written by him and signed by Albert Einstein that reached President Roosevelt's desk in the fall of 1939, alerting the U.S. government to the possible development of an atomic bomb by Nazi-dominated German scientists . The federal government responded by granting the Fermi-Szilard group $6,000 ($32,000 in constant U.S. dollars) to enable them to buy the graphite needed to produce slow neutrons for a pilot experiment. All these events are detailed in a lively fashion by the author, but without the Perspectives in Biology and Medicine ¦ Winter 1981 337 immediacy ofpersonal knowledge to be found in such accounts as those ofFrisch or Anderson. However, after some 2.5 years the Fermi-Szilard group moved to the University of Chicago to begin constructing the first nuclear reactor. The author joined the group after finishing her Ph.D. as a student of Robert Mulliken and so became directly involved in the action. Her account of the events leading to the achievement of criticality in December 1942 is a valuable contribution to the historical record, not only because ofher expert testimony concerning the technical aspects of the project, but also because of her sensitivity to the personalities involved: Fermi in particular, but also Szilard, Anderson, and Wigner, among others. This part of the book is by far the most interesting. After 1942...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 337-338
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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