Start of the Nuclear Era

Today marks the 60th anniversary of one of the most remarkable--and certainly one of the most fateful--scientific achievements of the 20th century: nuclear fission.

Renowned physicist Niels Bohr announced at a meeting in Washington, D.C., on 26 January 1939 that German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman had inadvertently produced nuclear fission while bombarding uranium with neutrons to produce heavier elements. The duo produced barium, a lighter element, and they quickly realized that they had split the uranium atom into two roughly equal parts. Calculations suggested that this process could generate tremendous energy; scientists later found that the fission of 1 gram of uranium releases a whopping 100 million kilojoules. Moreover, this process was capable of self-propagation by a chain reaction.

Hahn and Strassman's discovery led to the development of the atomic bomb, which the United States used against Japan in August 1945. A few months later, Hahn received the belated news that he had been awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his work on nuclear fission.