Atomic Bomb: Science and Ethics Homework Part One: Whether to Build and Atomic Bomb In August 1939, Albert Einstein, a brilliant and well-known physicist, sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a letter. In it, Einstein explained recent scientific developments that might mean an atomic bomb could be created. He went on to urge Roosevelt to investigate that possibility. He also suggested that Germany might already be building an atomic bomb. The following is an excerpt from Einstein’s letter:
“In the course of the Last four months it has been made probable-through the work of Joliet in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America-that it may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium (one of the materials essential to the construction of an atomic bomb), by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
“This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable-though much less certain-that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.
“I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizacker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.”
When Einstein wrote this letter to Roosevelt, the United States had not yet entered into war with Germany. However, the president took immediate interest in the scientific development Einstein described. The bomb would not only be the most powerful weapon on earth, it would transform warfare by making it possible to kill more people with much less effort.
In the 18 months after Einstein sent his letter, the Roosevelt administration debated what action to take to counter the German threat. Some officials wondered how serious the threat really was. In addition, not all scientists agreed with Einstein, and some wondered whether the bomb could be developed so quickly.
Critical Thinking Question A
You are an advisor to President Roosevelt. Which of the following do you advise the president to do? Defend your answer in one paragraph on a separate sheet of paper. Feel free to use outside sources to defend your answer.
Ignore scientific developments and do not build and atomic bomb; concentrate U.S. efforts on building conventional weapons, such as faster planes and more powerful tanks.
Vigorously pursue the construction of an atomic bomb because the United States is in a race against Germany.
Postpone the development of an atomic bomb and send spies into Germany to determine the accuracy of Einstein’s letter.
Do no develop and atomic bomb. Instead, monitor the construction of new German weapons facilities and then send American bombers to destroy them.
Denounce the development of an atomic bomb as being immoral. Only evil could come from the development of such a destructive weapon.
Part Two: Building of the Bomb-The Science behind It
In 1939, Roosevelt decides to support research aimed at creating an atomic bomb. Scientists’ progress was slow at first. However, in the spring of 1940, British scientists reported finding a process by which one could realistically develop an atomic bomb. Their announcement convinced Roosevelt and his advisor to commit fully to the development of the new weapon.
The Manhattan Project – the code name for the U.S. project to build an atomic bomb – involved the efforts of about 125,000 Americans, most of whom did not know exactly what they were working on due to the strict secrecy surrounding the project. The government set up large facilities in Hanford, Washington, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, and invested more than $2 billion in the Manhattan Project. For almost three years, the largest team of scientists the world had ever known worked feverishly to produce an atomic bomb.
Both Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr – two foreign born scientists who had moved to the United States – played an important role in the ultimate success of the project. Although no formal decisions were made, both Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill assumed that any atomic weapon the scientists developed would be used to hasten the end of the war.
On July 16, 1945, scientists tested the “gadget” in a desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico. Before dawn, they set off the first atomic bomb in history. The explosion first emitted a flash of bright light, a heat wave, and a fast-moving fireball; then a mushroom-shaped cloud rose eight miles into the desert sky. The sound of the explosion was so strong that people heard it 100 miles away, and the force of it shattered windows 125 miles away. The blast left a shallow but 1,200-foot-wide crater in the earth. In short, the test was a success.
On August 6, 1945, and American B-29 plane called Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a medium-size Japanese city. The five-ton weapon, nicknamed, “Little Boy”, exploded with tremendous force 1,900 feet above the city.
The immense destructive power of atomic weapons derives from a sudden release of energy produced by splitting the nuclei of the fissile elements making up the bombs' core. The U.S. developed two types of atomic bombs during the Second World War. The first, Little Boy, was a gun-type weapon with a uranium core. Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. The second weapon, dropped on Nagasaki, was called Fat Man and was an implosion-type device with a plutonium core.
The isotopes uranium-235 and plutonium-239 were selected by the atomic scientists because they readily undergo fission. Fission occurs when a neutron strikes the nucleus of either isotope, splitting the nucleus into fragments, and releasing a tremendous amount of energy. The fission process becomes self-sustaining as neutrons produced by the splitting of atom strike nearby nuclei and produce more fission. This is known as a chain reaction and is what causes an atomic explosion.
Critical Thinking Question B
Some say that the atomic bomb was a great technological science advancement. Other see it as a tool for killing. Do you think it was morally right for the three scientists (Fermi, Bohr, and Einstein) to assist in the creation of the atomic bomb? Why/why not? Defend your answer in one paragraph on a separate sheet of paper. Feel free to use outside sources to defend your answer.