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Primer: The Soviet Bomb March 25, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Primer.
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Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov, Photo Credit: Ioffe Physical Technical Institute, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov, Photo Credit: Ioffe Physical Technical Institute, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives

The early history of the atomic bomb is necessarily a part of the history of physics, because in less than a decade what was an entirely novel physical phenomenon—the splitting of certain atomic nuclei when struck by neutrons—had been engineered into a military weapon with unprecedented destructive power.

The key  experiments had been conducted in Germany at the end of 1938, but once the mechanism had been interpreted by Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch (both of whom had fled the Nazis), its implications were appreciated across the world of nuclear physics, including in the Soviet Union.

Like the United States, the Soviet Union was not a traditional leader in physics, but, like the United States, the physics community was respected and had a burgeoning nuclear physics community.  This community, like others across the world, fully recognized the implications of nuclear fission before nuclear research went secret after the war began, and members of it played a leading role in the research and development of nuclear weaponry and energy.

During the war, because the Soviet Union quickly became embroiled in an epic ground war with the Nazis, Soviet nuclear research did not receive as strong a priority as it ultimately did in the United States, though a research project was established in the winter of 1942-43 once it was learned from spies that the Germans, British, and Americans had established their own programs.  The (more…)