Scientists Shot Neutrons At Everything, And Then Nuclear Energy Happened (Part 1 of 3)

Discussions of nuclear energy and weapons are everywhere today, but how was nuclear fission even discovered?


Nuclear energy is the culmination of hundreds of years of scientific research into the world around us. Early scientists wanted to know what things were made of, and through question after question, we inched towards an understanding that atoms make up everything around us. That culminated in the Nuclear Age, or Atomic Age, which officially began in 1945. But that was over 70 years ago, so why doesn't it feel like we're living in the nuclear age?

When nuclear energy was discovered, it promised to revolutionize everything we had. From rockets to Mars, to flying cars, to buttons that would clean your house with one push-- people believed nuclear energy was going to truly bring us into the future. But here we are, with no flying cars or special buttons, so what's the hold up?

To answer this, we have to start at the beginning. How was nuclear energy discovered in the first place?

In the 1930s, Enrico Fermi and other scientists began bombarding heavy elements with neutrons in attempts to make new elements and flesh out the periodic table. Then, in 1938, Otto Frisch and Lise Meitner began analyzing the results of a confusing experiment. An element bombarded with neutrons resulted in a lighter element, instead of a heavier one. That's when Frisch and Meitner realized the nucleus might actually be splitting. They did the math and it all worked out-- and just like that, nuclear fission was discovered.