Saturday, March 03, 2007

Otto Frisch Discovers Fission, 1938

"Otto Frisch Discovers Fission, 1938"
By John Canaday
Posted Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2007, at 7:19 AM ET at Slate

Rare earth sparks the clouds
        between two wars.
Fermi, Hahn and Strassman,
all chemists, physicists,
        track protons now.
But Hitler's blinders point
        to Austria.
The occupation interrupts
        Aunt Lise's
parting of nature's mists.
        When she departs
for Sweden, isotopes
        of radium
(she thinks) sit on her desk,
Lonely, she summons me
        north to Kungälv
for our Christmas ritual.
        Her colleague's letter
intercepts festivities.
        The body's tagged.
Identified by Hahn.
        It's barium.
I strap on skis; she demurs,
        makes good her claim
to move as fast without.
        The woods that wall
the Göta älv become
        our conference room;
a fallen spruce's trunk
        our sticky seat,
my pockets stocked with scraps
        of hotel paper.
We know uranium
        can't crack in two
against the grain of Gamow's
        alpha theory.
Yet it does. We turn
        to Schrödinger
for insight: particles
        are waves. Then Bohr:
a nucleus is liquid,
        like a drop. Our thought:
that heavy nuclei
        must undulate
like water molecules,
In larger elements
        charge balances
the surface tension. Struck
        even lightly,
in neutron capture,
        the pseudo drop
will wobble, waist, and split.
        Sometimes physics
lacks words for what we think.
        Its abstract paths—
quantum tunnel effects,
        packing fractions,
and disintegration—
        lead to thickets
where neutrons multiply
        like rabbits, wildly.
The winter woods are gone.
        The mind's meadows
bloom as I calculate
        the energy
released: two hundred million
        electron volts.
Now atoms break and breed
        like living cells.
I name their splitting "fission"
        and publish it
where even Nazi stooges
        can read the news.

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