The Atom Bomb
The atom bomb is arguably the most destructive invention in human history. It has the power to level cities and kill hundreds of thousands of people at once-the United States, to this day, is the only country to use the atom bomb in war.
In the early 20th century, physicists discovered the properties of atoms, and realized that they held tremendous amounts of energy inside them which were not previously apparent. Winston Churchill himself speculated that a bomb 'no bigger than an orange' might be able to destroy a city block.
In 1934, a German physicist named Leó Szilárd escaped to London, where he patented the concept of a nuclear chain reaction-in which one nuclear reaction triggers several others to take place-and gave birth to the preliminary concept of an atom bomb. Scientists all over the world were doing concurrent experiments to push our understanding of the process. When World War II broke out, both sides of the war knew that the atom bomb was theoretically possible, though thus far nobody had been able to successfully create one.
The fears that the Nazis might build an atom bomb led Albert Einstein to pen a letter to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, telling him about the dangers of the weapon. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 spurred the President into action, and he commissioned the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project consisted of many of the world's greatest scientists. This included many who had escaped Europe in the wake of World War II. These men and women were tasked with creating an atom bomb, set up in secret sites all over the US-eminently in Los Alamos, New Mexico-and given unprecedented funding.
The team, led by J. Robert Oppenheimer, conducted research which rapidly advanced the scientific understanding that had been the norm up until that point. They performed experiments with uranium and plutonium fission bombs (fission means the atom splits).
At the same time, the Nazis had their own nuclear weapons program, but were way behind the Americans. The weapon was ready for preliminary tests three months after Germany's surrender in 1945. The scientists successfully blew up the first nuclear bomb in the New Mexico desert. That same month, the United States issued an ultimatum to Japan, who was still in the war-surrender or face 'complete and utter destruction.'
The Japanese declined surrender, and to avoid a long and bloody land battle, President Truman authorized the detonation of two nuclear weapons in Japan. The bombs were dropped by planes on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing more than one hundred thousand people instantly and many more in the following months from radiation sickness. Though Japan surrendered as a result, the Soviets had managed to plant spies in the Manhattan Project, and soon developed their own nuclear weapons. The armament on both sides resulted in the subsequent Cold War.
Surprisingly, the atom bomb potentially prevented outright bloodshed in the Cold War, as anyone who used it would be destroyed by the opposition's bombs, a concept termed 'mutually assured destruction.' Though atomic energy could potentially be used to solve the energy crisis, it also has the potential to be horribly destructive if it falls into the wrong hands.
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