A nuclear chemist led Athens Rotarians on a brisk journey through the development of the atom bomb at Athens Country Club on Thursday.
Jim Archer said the discoveries in the decades led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki outpaced any in history up until that point.
"At the beginning of the century we had no idea what the structure of matter was," Archer said. "We knew nothing about the nucleus of an atom."
Starting with Albert Einstein, scientists began to accumulate knowledge at incredible speed.
"Discoveries piled on each other," Archer said. "It was the right people, at the right place. at the right time, with the right ideas."
Archer grew up in Kerens, got degrees in chemistry and organic chemistry at East Texas State University, before becoming the first person to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry from Texas A&M University in College Station. He has 44 years of experience as a college educator. Archer is now retired and he and his wife Paula devote their time to their ranch in the Pittsburg, Texas area. He serves as President of the Northeast Texas Community College Foundation.
In 1939, Archer said, two German scientists were experimenting with uranium. They discovered that if they shot neutrons into an atom of uranium 238 they could cause the atom to split. In time, scientists also found that uranium 235, though rare, was much more useful.
Armed with the knowledge that it was possible to split an atom, nations began to try to use the new technology to develop an atom bomb. When WWII began, Germany was ahead in the game.
"When they invaded Norway, Belgium and Sweden, they got the largest deposits of uranium in the world from the Belgium Congo," Archer said. "in Norway, they had the world's only large producer of heavy water. It was a worrisome enough thing that the British had commandos go in and blow up the plant at the loss of quite of few lives."
Most of the work the scientists had been doing in the realm was not secret, but had been published in journals.
"They were not military men," Archer said. "They were college professors. They wanted to share what they were doing with their other colleges."
As the rumblings of the beginning of World War II escalated, a group of scientists went to discuss their findings with Franklin Roosevelt. He was interested.
On December 7, 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Soon, the U.S. was at war with Imperial Japan and Germany. The U.S. set the Manhattan Project into motion.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the head of the project in New Mexico. He was a Harvard graduate who spoke six languages.
"Most of the Nobel Prize winning physicists in most of the western world were part of the project." Archer said.
By the end of July, 1945 an experimental bomb was finished. The first bomb was dropped in Hiroshima on August 6. Three days later, a second bomb was released over Nagasaki.
When the bomb is dropped, Archer said. the detonation must occur at about 1,000 feet above the earth below. The effect is like a big shock wave hitting the earth and spreading.
"It's like a big wind blast, at temperatures of 4,000 to 5,000 degrees," Archer said.
Fat man and little boy, as the bombs were called, quickly facilitated the surrender of Japan and the end of World War II. The cost was the loss of more than 100,000 lives and tremendous destruction.
The death toll was great, Archer said, but the practice of fire bombing was already in use and could kill just as many. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, in the night of March 9–10, 1945, a firebomb attack in Tokyo, destroyed about 25 percent of the city’s buildings (most of them flimsily built of wood and plaster), killed more than 80,000 people, and made 1,000,000 homeless.