OSA / Guide / RIP / Atom

Who Is Who

Below you will find biographical summary of scholars mentioned in the context of the Atom Exhibition.

Compiled by Andreas Andersson.

Henri Bequerel

December 15, 1852
Paris, France

In 1896, Becquerel accidentally discovered radioactivity while investigating phosphorescence in uranium salts. Investigating the work of Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, Becquerel wrapped a fluorescent mineral, potassium uranyl sulfate, in photographic plates and black material in preparation for an experiment requiring bright sunlight. However, prior to actually performing the experiment, Becquerel found that the photographic plates were fully exposed. This discovery led Becquerel to investigate the spontaneous emission of nuclear radiation. In 1903 he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Pierre and Marie Curie ’in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by his discovery of spontaneous radioactivity’


Niels Bohr

October 7, 1885
Copenhagen, Denmark

Neils Bohr made several contributions to the understunding of atomic structure and quantum mechanics. He received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Copenhagen in 1911 after which he moved to England to study under Ernest Rutherford. Based on an earlier theory by Rutherford that the atom consisted of a positively charged nucleus, with negatively charged electrons orbiting around it, Bohr published a theory about the structure of the atom in 1913. Bohr expanded on Rutherford’s theory, suggesting that electrons only travel in successively larger orbits and that the outer orbits hold more electrons than the inner ones. He also proposed that the outer orbits determined the atom’s chemical properties and that atoms emit radiation when an electron jumps from an outer orbit to an inner one, emitting light. In 1922, Bohr won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the structure of atoms.


James Chadwick

October 20, 1891
Cheshire, England

In 1932 Chadwick made a fundamental discovery in the domain of nuclear science: he discovered the particle in the nucleus of an atom that became known as the neutron because it has no electric charge. In contrast with the helium nuclei (alpha particles) which are positively charged, and therefore repelled by the considerable electrical forces present in the nuclei of heavy atoms, this new tool in atomic disintegration need not overcome any electric barrier and is capable of penetrating and splitting the nuclei of even the heaviest elements. In this way, Chadwick prepared the way towards the fission of uranium 235 and towards the creation of the atomic bomb. For this epochal discovery he was awarded the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society in 1932, and subsequently the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1935. Chadwick’s discovery made it possible to create elements heavier than uranium in the laboratory. His discovery particularly inspired Enrico Fermi, Italian physicist and Nobel laureate, to discover nuclear reactions brought by slowed neutrons, and led Lise Meitner, Austrian physicist, to the discovery of ’nuclear fission’, which triggered the development of an atomic bomb.


John Cockcroft

May 27, 1897
Todmorden, England

In 1928 he began to work on the acceleration of protons with Ernest Walton. In 1932 they bombarded lithium with high energy protons, and succeeded in transmuting it into helium and other chemical elements. This was the first occasion on which an atomic nucleus of one element had been successfully changed to a different nucleus by artificial means. This feat was popularly -- if not somewhat inaccurately -- known as splitting the atom. In 1951 Cockcroft, along with Walton, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in the use of accelerated particles to study the atomic nucleus.


Marie Curie

November 7, 1867
Warsaw, Poland

At the Sorbonne she met and married another instructor, Pierre Curie. Together they studied radioactive materials, particularly the uranium pitchblende ore, which had the curious property of being more radioactive than the uranium extracted from it. By 1898 they deduced a logical explanation: that the pitchblende contained traces of some unknown radioactive component which was far more radioactive than uranium; thus on December 26th Marie Curie announced the existence of this new substance. Over several years of unceasing labour they refined several tons of pitchblende, progressively concentrating the radioactive components, and eventually isolated initially the chloride salts (refining radium chloride on April 20, 1902) and then two new chemical elements. The first they named polonium after Marie’s native country, and the other was named radium from its intense radioactivity. Maria Sk³odowska Curie Nobel Prize DiplomaTogether with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1903: ’in recognition of the extraordinary services they have rendered by their joint researches on the radiation phenomena discovered by Professor Henri Becquerel’. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize. Eight years later, she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1911 ’in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element’.


Frederic Curie

March 19, 1900
Paris, France

While being a lecturer at the Paris Faculty of Science, he collaborated with his wife on research on the structure of the atom, in particular on the projection of nuclei, which was an essential step in the discovery of the neutron. In 1935 they were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. In 1937 he left the Radium Institute to become a professor at the College de France working on chain reactions and the requirements for the successful construction of a nuclear reactor that uses controlled nuclear fission to generate energy through the use of uranium and heavy water. Joliot was one of the scientists mentioned in Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt as one of the leading scientists on the course to chain reactions.


Irene Joliot-Curie

September 12, 1897
Paris, France

She studied at the Faculty of Science at the Sorbonne but her education was interrupted by World War I during which she served as a nurse radiographer. After the War, she earned her doctorate in science, doing her thesis on the alpha rays of polonium. In 1926 she married Frédéric Joliot (the couple both hyphenated their surnames) and collaborated with him on studying atoms. In 1935 they shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1938 her research on the action of neutrons on the heavy elements, was an important step in the discovery of nuclear fission. She became Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris in 1937, and in 1946 the Director of the Radium Institute.


Carl David Anderson

September 3, 1905
New York, USA

Anderson studied physics and engineering at Caltech (B.S., 1927; Ph.D., 1930). Under the supervision of Robert A. Millikan, he began investigations into cosmic rays during the course of which he encountered unexpected particle tracks in his cloud chamber photographs that he correctly interpreted as having been created by a particle with the same mass as the electron, but with opposite electrical charge. This discovery, announced in 1932 and later confirmed by others, validated Paul Dirac’s theoretical prediction of the existence of the positron. Anderson obtained the first direct proof that positrons existed by shooting gamma rays produced by thorium carbide (ThC’’) into other materials, resulting in creation of positron-electron pairs. For this work, Anderson shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1936 with Victor Hess.


Albert Einstein

March 14, 1879
Baden-Württemberg, Germany

He was widely regarded as the greatest scientist of the 20th century. He was the author of the general theory of relativity and made important contributions to the special theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, and cosmology. He was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics for his explanation of the photoelectric effect in 1905 (his ’miracle year’) and ’for his services to Theoretical Physics’.


Enrico Fermi

September 29, 1901
Rome, Italy

In 1938, Fermi won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his ’demonstrations of the existence of new radioactive elements produced by neutron irradiation, and for his related discovery of nuclear reactions brought about by slow neutrons’. When man first achieved the first self sustained nuclear chain reaction, a coded phone call was made to one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project, James Conant: ’The Italian navigator has landed in the new world... The natives were very friendly’. The chain-reacting pile was important not only for its help in assessing the properties of fission -- needed for understanding the internal workings of an atomic bomb -- but because it would serve as a pilot plant for the massive reactors which would be created in Hanford, Washington, which would then be used to ’breed’ the plutonium needed for the bombs used at the Trinity test and Nagasaki. Eventually Fermi and Szilárd’s reactor work was folded into the Manhattan Project.


Georgii Flerov

March 2, 1913
Rostov-on-Don, Russia

He is known for writing to Stalin in April of 1942 and pointing out the conspicuous silence within the field of nuclear fission in the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Flyorov’s urgings led to the eventual development of the USSR’s own atomic bomb project. He also claims as his discovery two transition metal elements: Seaborgium and Bohrium.


Otto Hahn

March 8, 1879
Frankfurt, Germany

Together with Lise Meitner and Otto von Baeyer, he developed a technique to measure the beta decay spectra of radioactive isotopes; this achievement was recognised by his securing the post of professor at the newly founded Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institute for Chemistry in Berlin in 1912. In 1918, he, together with Meitner, discovered protactinium. When Meitner fled Nazi Germany in 1938, he continued work with Fritz Strassmann on elucidating the outcome of the bombardment of uranium with thermal neutrons. He communicated his results to Meitner who, in collaboration with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, correctly interpreted them as evidence of nuclear fission (a phrase coined by Frisch). Thus Otto Hahn is credited as having been the first person to split the atom. Once the idea of fission had been accepted, Hahn continued his experiments and demonstrated the huge amounts of energy that neutron-induced fission could produce, either for energy production or warfare.


Igor Kurchatov

January 8, 1903
Sim, Chelyabinsk Oblast

Igor Kurchatov and his apprentice Georgiy Flerov actually discovered the basic ideas of the uranium chain reaction and the nuclear reactor concept back in the 30’s .Then in 1942 Kurchatov declares :’At breaking up of kernels in a kilogram of uranium, the energy released must be equal to the explosion of 20’000 tons of trotyl ’.This announcement has been practically verified during the explosion of Hiroshima. On August 29, 1949 the team detonated First Lightning, its initial test device (a plutonium implosion bomb) at the Semipalatinsk Test Site; Kurchatov later remarked that his main feeling at the time was one of relief, as he was confident that had the weapon failed, Stalin would have had him shot. Kurchatov subsequently worked on the Soviet hydrogen bomb program (1953), but later worked for the peaceful use of nuclear technology, and advocated against nuclear bomb tests. During the A-bomb programme, Kurchatov swore he wouldn’t cut his beard until the program succeeded, and he continued to wear a large beard (often cut into eccentric styles) for the remainder of his life, earning him the nickname ’The Beard’.


Edwin McMillan

September 18, 1907
Redondo Beach, California

In 1940 he created neptunium, a decay product of uranium-239, using the cyclotron at Berkeley. In World War II, he was involved in research on radar, sonar, and nuclear weapons. In 1945 he developed ideas for the improvement of the cyclotron, leading to the development of the synchrotron. With Glenn T. Seaborg, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1951 for the creation of the first transuranium elements.


Lise Meitner

November 7, 1878
Vienna, Austria

Lise went to Berlin in 1907 to study with Max Planck and work with the chemist Otto Hahn. She collaborated with Hahn for 30 years, each of them leading a section in Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Hahn and Meitner collaborated closely, studying radioactivity, with her knowledge of physics and his knowledge of chemistry. With the discovery of the neutron in the early 1930s, speculation arose in the scientific community that it might be possible to create elements heavier than uranium (atomic number 92) in the laboratory. A scientific race commenced between Ernest Rutherford in Britain, Irene Joliot-Curie in France, Enrico Fermi in Italy, and the Meitner-Hahn team in Berlin. At the time, all concerned believed that this was abstract research for the probable honor of a Nobel prize. None suspected that this research would culminate in nuclear weapons.


Max Plank

April 23, 1858
Kiel, Germany

In 1925 Franck and Gustav Ludwig Hertz received the Nobel Prize in Physics for joint work investigating the behavior of free electrons in various gases and the inelastic impacts of electrons on atoms. Their investigations resulted in experimental proof of some of the basic concepts of Bohr’s atomic theory. Franck headed a group of atomic scientists in preparing the ’Franck Report’ for the US War Department. The report urged an open demonstration of the atomic bomb in an uninhabited place as an alternative to using the weapon without warning on Japan. He is also considered to be the inventor of quantum theory.


J. Robert Oppenheimer

April 22, 1904
New York City, USA

Best known for his role as the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to develop the first nuclear weapons. Known colloquially as ’the father of the atomic bomb’, Oppenheimer lamented the weapon’s killing power after it was used to destroy the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After the war, he was a chief advisor to the newly created Atomic Energy Commission and used that position to lobby for international control of atomic energy and to avert the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.


Willhelm Roentgen

March 27, 1845
Lennep, Germany

In 1901 Röntgen was awarded the very first Nobel Prize in Physics. The award was officially, ’in recognition of the extraordinary services he has rendered by the discovery of the remarkable rays subsequently named after him’. Röntgen donated the monetary reward from the prize to his university. Like Pierre Curie would do several years later he refused to take out any patents related to his discovery on moral grounds. He did not even want the rays to be named after him. (On November 2004 IUPAC named the element Roentgenium after him as well.)


Ernest Rutherford

August 30, 1871
Spring Grove, New Zealand

In 1898 Rutherford was appointed to the chair of physics at McGill University where he did the work which gained him the 1908 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. He had demonstrated that radioactivity was the spontaneous disintegration of atoms. He noticed that in a sample of radioactive material it invariably took the same amount of time for half the sample to decay — its ’half-life’ — and created a practical application for this phenomenon using this constant rate of decay as a clock, which could then be used to help determine the actual age of the Earth that turned out to be much older than most scientists at the time believed. In 1907 he took the chair of physics at the University of Manchester. There he discovered the nuclear nature of atoms and was the world’s first successful ’alchemist’: he converted nitrogen into oxygen. While working with Niels Bohr (who figured out that electrons moved in specific orbits) Rutherford theorized about the existence of neutrons, which could somehow compensate for the repulsive effect of the positive charges of protons by causing an attractive nuclear force and thus keeping the nuclei from breaking apart.


Andrei Sakharov

May 21, 1921
Moscow, Russia

Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov was an eminent Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident and human rights activist. Sakharov was an advocate of civil liberties and reforms in the Soviet Union. In mid-1948 he participated in the Soviet atomic bomb project under Igor Kurchatov. In 1953, he received his D.Sc. degree, was elected a full member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, and was awarded the first of his three Hero of Socialist Labor titles. Sakharov continued to work at Sarov, helping on the first genuine Soviet H-bombs, tested in 1955, and the 50MT ’Tsar Bomba’ of October 1961, the most powerful device ever exploded. In 1973 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He won the prize in 1975, although he was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect it. His wife read his speech at the acceptance ceremony. He is the only one to have invented a nuclear bomb and been awarded with a Nobel Peace Prise.


Fritz Strassman

February 22, 1902
Boppard, Germany

Straßmann subsequently worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin-Dahlem, firstly from 1929. (and, from 1948 to 1953 at its successor, the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry in Mainz). His expertise in analytical chemistry was employed by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner in their investigation of the products of the bombardment of uranium with neutrons. In December 1938 he discovered as close collaborator of Otto Hahn the neutron-induced fission of uranium. He studied also methods for geological age determinations via radioactive decay. In 1944 Otto Hahn got the Nobel Prize for the work of Lise Meitner, Fritz Straßmann and himself. President Johnson honoured Hahn, Meitner and Sraßmann 1966 with the Enrico Fermi Award. The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid after him: 19136 Strassmann.


Leo Szilard

February 11, 1898
Budapest, Hungary

Szilárd was instrumental in the development of the Manhattan Project. It was his idea to send a confidential letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt explaining the possibility of nuclear weapons, and to encourage the development of a program which could lead to their creation. In August 1939 he obtained Albert Einstein’s endorsement of this proposal, and the Einstein-Szilárd letter eventually led to the establishment of research into nuclear fission by the U.S. government. Later, he moved to the University of Chicago to continue work on the project. There, along with Fermi, he helped to construct the first ’neutronic reactor’, a uranium and graphite ’pile’ in which the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was achieved, in 1942.


Edward Teller

January 15, 1908
Budapest, Hungary

Known colloquially as ’the father of the hydrogen bomb’ he was an early member of the Manhattan Project charged with developing the first atomic bombs. During this time he made a serious push to develop the first fusion-based weapons as well, but these were deferred until after World War II.


J.J. Thompson

December 18, 1856
Manchester, England

Influenced by the work of James Clerk Maxwell as well as the discovery of the X-ray, he deduced that cathode rays (produced by Crookes tube) exhibited a single charge-to-mass ratio e/m and must be composed of a single type of negatively charged particle. He called these particles ’corpuscles.’ The term electron had been proposed earlier, by G. Johnstone Stoney, as a fixed quantum of electric charge in electrochemistry, but Thomson realized that it was also a subatomic particle, the first one to be discovered. His discovery was made known in 1897, and caused a sensation in scientific circles, eventually resulting in his being awarded a Nobel prize (1906).


Mordechai Vanunu

October 13, 1954
Marrakech, Morocco

Mordechai Vanunu also known by his baptismal name John Crossman, is an Israeli former nuclear technician who revealed details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986. He was subsequently lured to Rome by an Israeli Mossad agent, abducted and smuggled to Israel, where he was tried behind closed doors and convicted of treason.


Ernest Walton

October 6, 1903
Dungarvan, Ireland

He and John Cockcroft were awarded the 1951 Nobel Prize for work on the transmutation of atomic nuclei by artificially accelerated atomic particles (popularly known as splitting the atom) carried out in the Cavendish Laboratory in the University of Cambridge.




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