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David Gregory reports
Their work turned the course of the war
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Thursday, 17 February, 2000, 21:04 GMT
Brum and the Bomb

By BBC Midlands science correspondent David Gregory

Although the Americans have claimed much of the credit for developing the atomic bomb, another story is emerging. Scientists and researchers in wartime Birmingham did much of the original, groundbreaking work which was to change the world.

Birmingham University today Birmingham University: Birthplace of the bomb ?
In the spring of 1940 two Jewish scientists, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls, arrived in Birmingham having fled from Nazi Germany.

Keen to help with the important military research under way at the University of Birmingham, they soon discovered that, as enemy aliens, they were forbidden even from entering the laboratories, still less allowed to work on experiments.

Secret research

Peierls joined the Auxiliary Fire Service putting out fires all over the city, but when the bombs weren't falling, both men returned to the university.

They were approached unofficially to help colleagues with top-secret radar research, but were barred from the radar labs themselves.

Otto Frisch - whose eldest child Monica recently became the treasurer of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - returned to his first love, nuclear physics. It was he, with his Aunt, Lise Meitner, who had described and named atomic fission in 1939.

And while popular science fiction of the time was full of atomic reactors and bombs, physicists maintained that there was no way to release the power of the atom. At least not to create a weapon.

Otto Frisch after the war,  receiving Otto Frisch soon began nuclear physics research
To create an energy source, or a bomb, scientists needed a chain reaction. Only the very rare isotope uranium 235 could form such a reaction suitable for use in a bomb. But this forms less than 1% of natural uranium.

At the time, the idea of somehow separating out this particular isotope to make a bomb seemed incredible.

But, intrigued by the idea of using pure uranium 235, Peierls and Frisch set out to calculate just how many tons of it you would need for a bomb.

The answer, which stunned them both, was just a pound - a lump of uranium the size of a golf ball.

Immense problems

The technical problems were immense. To separate the isotopes the researchers used uranium in the form of an extremely corrosive gas.

Professor Colin Tatlow from the University of Birmingham received a PhD for the work he did on essential lubricants designed to stop the gas simply eating through the manufacturing plant.

Detail of Frisch and Peierls' memorandum on isolating Uranium 235 Building the bomb: the Birmingham researchers' original work
Word of the discoveries was passed on to Winston Churchill's wartime government, and the top-secret details were sent across the Atlantic to scientists working on the Manhattan Project.

It was here, at a remote desert research station at Los Alamos in New Mexico, that the first viable atom bombs - destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki - were constructed.

Manhattan was quite literally kick-started as a project by the brilliant research work done in Birmingham - but Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls and their Birmingham team never enjoyed the fame bestowed on their colleagues across the Atlantic.

Oppenheimer Robert Oppenheimer - his Manhattan team took all the credit
Hitler's threat

As the war drew to a close, Hitler began to boast of a secret German weapon. Those involved in the British bomb project feared that secret weapon could be the atomic bomb.

Sir Michael Clapham from ICI in Birmingham was also involved in making the uranium separation process work. He was in London at a meeting to discuss the British atom bomb when Hitler finally unleashed his secret weapon on the capital.

"We heard this tremendous crash. The committee secretary went out of the room. He came back and said: 'It's a rocket bomb that has fallen.' And we all breathed a sigh of relief, it's only an ordinary bomb. It wasn't what we were frightened of."

Some historians believe the Germans simply couldn't afford to develop the atom bomb and the V2 rocket, and opted to build the latter. But there is another theory which Rudolph Peierls himself put forward.

German mistakes

mushroom cloud Nagasaki: but this could have been Britain had Hitler succeeded
Twelve years earlier Peierls had been a student with Werner Heisenberg, the German scientist who was later put in charge of research into the German atom bomb.

Heisenberg asked Peierls to back up an experimental hunch with some detailed mathematics. After weeks of fruitless calculation Peierls concluded Heisenberg's hunch was wrong.

"Heisenberg, though a brilliant theoretician, was always very casual about numbers"

Peierls believed that casual approach to numbers failed Heisenberg in the end, when it came to the amount of uranium 235 needed for a bomb.

"Heisenberg used different arguments at different times, giving answers from "as big as a pineapple" - to many tons."

Had Heisenberg applied himself to the problem of uranium as diligently as his former student did, the end of the war might have seen more than German V2 rockets raining down on Britain.

David Gregory's television documentary, BBC Midlands Report: The Right Side of Wrong will be shown on Thursday 17 Feb at 1930 GMT on BBC2.
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09 Aug 98 |  Asia-Pacific
Japan blasts N-tests

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