The Rock that Became a Bomb

Uran – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail (2015) je třídílný televizní dokumentární seriál o uranu, jeho historii a jeho použití. Produkce byla vyrobena Gene Pool Productions pro PBS a SBS a premiéru v obou sítích koncem července a srpna 2015. Série byla koncipována, vytvořena, napsána a režírována Wain Fimeri, byla natočena v devíti zemích a je představena Derekem Mullerem, inženýrským fyzikem a PhD v oboru fyziky a přednášejícím na vědeckém programu ABC Catalyst. Muller je také znám svým YouTube kanálem Veritasium.

V prvním díle Derek Muller uvádí uran a jeho využití v celé historii. Uran, původně pocházející ze Smolince, se stal předmětem intenzivního vědeckého studia. Jsou projednávány účinky radiace, jak radioaktivní prvky rozpadají a škodlivé účinky uranu. Epizoda se uzavírá s použitím uranu během 2. světové války jako jaderné zbraně.

The Rock that Became a Bomb

Around the turn of the 20th century uranium is almost unknown it is basically worthless but then in 40 years just a single generation it becomes the most desirable and terrifying rock on earth this is uranium and as a physicist I’m fascinated by its unique scientific properties but even more so by how this one rock has shaped the entire modern world uranium changes everything.

I’ve come to the Czech Republic. The first step on my journey to find uranium. These are Geiger counters. They measure nuclear radiation tiny particles emanating from the remnants of that exploding star. Each time they detect radiation they make a sound. Radiation exists naturally everywhere on Earth. Here in the Czech Republic the level is about 0.2 microsieverts per hour which is about average globally now over the course of the day that adds up to the same amount of radiation you receive when you get a dental x-ray. Radiation is in the air you breathe and the food you eat. It’s in the soil and it comes from space and that is due to the tiny amounts of uranium and other radioactive atoms found all over the planet every person including you emits nuclear radiation so you’re exposed to more if you sleep next to someone than if you sleep alone this is completely natural it’s called background radiation and it’s just part of being alive on planet Earth.

A natural background radiation varies all over the earth I’m measuring it in units called micro sieverts but the thing to remember is that natural background is about 0.2 microsieverts per hour but the reason I’ve come to Jáchymovský Důl Svornost.  Isn’t in the town it’s in the hills nearby this is a 500 year old silver mine that’s what they did in Jáchymov they mined silver but this is where our story of uranium begins

we’re descending at about 3 meters per second and we’ve been we’ve been going on for about 3 and a half minutes and still going my ears keep popping because of the change in pressure there must be some URI anymore around here because I’m reading about five or six microsieverts an hour that’s something like 50 times the background they’d normally be a closed – on the server we’ve arrived Jáchymovská štola mine bottom floor I’m looking for a dark seam of rock yeah here it is this is the stuff that the silver miners hated because when they found it it meant that the silver seam had played out so they nicknamed this rock Pesche blender Pesche which means hard luck and blender meaning rock so this was the hard luck rock but watch what happens under ultraviolet light it flores’s there’s a German chemist in 1789 who analyzes this stuff and finds that there’s a new element in there and he names it after the recently discovered planet Uranus and so the element becomes uranium we’re getting a lot of radiation remember up at the surface the background level was point two this is four thousand times that level this is the energy forged in an exploding star

For about 400 years the hated pêche blend (Smolinec) that contains the uranium is thrown away the worthless pêche blend (Smolinec) is dumped in these great big piles about the mines unlike the silver which makes the town rich they meant these big silver coins Jáchymovský tolar. It’s the origin of the word dollars and come to 20th century all of this bad luck rock is gonna be worth a lot of dollars.

Uranium may have remained underappreciated in the slag heaps of Yocum stall were it not for the curiosity of a 43 year old physicist here in Paris.

In 1896 Henri Becquerel is professor of physics. Here at the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris it is in this building that he performs an experiment to explore the fluorescence of uranium and what he finds is something incredible at the time the only known use of uranium is in glass making to make a pale yellow glass which sparkles in sunlight but again watch what happens under UV light the uranium glass fluorescence and it’s this that fascinates Henri Becquerel it leads him to perform a groundbreaking experiment he takes an ordinary piece of photographic film and in complete darkness he wraps it in thick black paper and then he puts a piece of uranium on top and leaves it out in the sunlight for several hours when he later develops the film he finds that it’s been fogged as if it’s been exposed to a burst of sunlight so all rhe reasons that the uranium is actually absorbing the sunlight and remitting it as invisible rays which penetrate the black paper and expose the film but the real discovery comes courtesy of the fickle Paris weather.

Thursday February 27th 1896 should go down as the most famous overcast day in the history of science Henri prepares his experiments exactly as before but there being no sunlight he puts it away in a drawer where he leaves it for several days and then for no reason anyone can ever really explain he decides to develop the film anyway even though the uranium was never exposed to sunlight and what he finds astounds him the film has been fogged just as before but how is that possible without the sunlight to energize the uranium well there is one answer and it’s seriously weird the sunlight has nothing to do with it.

Henri has found a strange unknown energy and it’s coming from inside the uranium now one of honorees students is Marie Curie she’s brilliant and she’s going to win two Nobel prizes but for now she’s looking for a subject for her doctoral thesis in physics she decides to study the strange energy in uranium which she gets for free from the piles of pêche blend lying around the old Yocum Stahl mines

this is Murray’s laboratory they have now removed almost all of the radioactive material it used to be here but this door leads to Murray’s office so she would often place her hand after working in a lab on this doorknob and you can still detect traces of the radioactive material that she left right on this door handle but it’s so little that it’s not dangerous this is an incredible old Geiger counter they had lying around here at the Curie Museum now listen to this this is pitch blende an ore containing uranium this is what Marie Curie starts with now over painstaking years she manages to grind down this substance and extract the uranium but what she finds surprises her the uranium isn’t the most active thing in the rock in fact there are other elements which are even more unstable and spit out even more energy the most famous is radium this completely new element radio glows it’s warm it releases strange wondrous energy it is Marie’s husband Pierre who first notices that when he places a glass vial of radium against his skin he develops a little sore like an intense patch of sunburn to us this suggests danger but physicians at the time had been treating various skin diseases and tumors by burning them so perhaps this could be the perfect application for the new wonder element radium the doctor has to hedge the girl to ten glass vials containing radium are sewn into bandages and applied directly to to is ready it applied the effect the area of the skin and fastened with bandage the process of the radiation has begun the rays penetrate into the tumor and destroyed the children usually play games for gauging all of Elfa treatment which is quite painless several months have passed and the girl is brought to see the doctor once again I look this way Mary Nadia when you grow up you will be very thankful to those who with the very dawn of the Atomic Age cured you with these magic rays the only way to get radium is to process uranium ore in fact it takes seven tons to make just one gram of radium how can it possibly be worth it well in 1908 gold costs 66 cents a gram a gram of radium is worth eighty eight thousand dollars radium is put into expensive cosmetics soap toothpaste tonic water it seems a wondrous cure-all exploit it even by the town that once considered it worthless the old mining town of Yocum stall the place that invented the dollar reinvents itself as a health spa come and bathe in radium..

The radium spas attract a wealthy clientele including in the summer of 1921 a precocious seventeen year old American Robert Oppenheimer he is fascinated by the rocks lying around from the old yokum’s thaw mines and in 20 years Robert Oppenheimer will ensure that uranium becomes the most terrifying stuff on planet earth because young Robert Oppenheimer is going to make uranium into the bomb that explodes over four Ashima Paris in the year 1903 radium makes Marie Curie the first superstar of atomic physics and it is for the study of this rock that Marie Curie is awarded her doctorate in physics the first woman ever in France to celebrate she and Pierre hold a party out in the garden and we’re all invited.

In the garden that night Pierre Curie pulls from his pocket a vial of radium and everyone gasps in attendance is a 31 year old New Zealand er Ernest Rutherford he wonders what makes this stuff glow and what is the relationship between radium and uranium Rutherford had partnered with a brilliant 22 year old chemist named Frederick Soddy together they’ve been studying uranium and it’s taken them on a journey into the tiny unknown world of the atom a speck of uranium the size of the dot over and I would contain more than 2 million trillion atoms the heart of the atom is the nucleus 20,000 times smaller than the atom itself this tiny nucleus at the center of the atom is made of protons and neutrons and they’re tightly bound together unlike billiard balls protons and neutrons can’t be knocked around they remain fixed unchanging inside the nucleus and it’s actually the number of protons inside each nucleus that defines the element an atom with one proton as its nucleus is the element hydrogen in the atomic world it doesn’t get any simpler every atom in the universe with one proton is hydrogen an atom with two protons is the element helium now you’ll notice this one also has two neutrons represented by white balls now some helium atoms have one neutrons some have three but all helium atoms have precisely two protons an atom with six protons is the element carbon could be the carbon in a tree or the carbon in diamond all have exactly 6 protons each different element has a unique number of protons 7 is nitrogen 8 oxygen 79 is gold but have a look at this the uranium nucleus has a whopping 92 protons and usually 146 neutrons it is the biggest nucleus on earth so big that it is groaning under the strain an Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy find that it is doing something extraordinary it actually spits out chunks of itself and these chunks are radiation now they contain proton so when uranium releases radiation it’s losing protons so it no longer has 92 and that means it’s no longer uranium it’s a completely different element Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy are witnessing the uranium nucleus transforming itself and this challenges our fundamental understanding of the physical world a nucleus doesn’t just change so this suggests the dark and magical arts of the alchemists alchemists were wizards and magicians they dabbled in potions and spells their dream was to transform one element into another they called it transmutation.

the alchemists never succeeded it’s impossible one element can’t just change into another that’s magic but as Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy begin to look at uranium that’s exactly what they find they’ve glimpsed the dragon.

uranium when it’s hails radiation and energy transforms into thorium it actually turns into a completely different element uranium is a shapeshifter and it does this naturally a lump of uranium will do this all by itself Frederick Soddy is so excited he shouts Rutherford this is transmutation Rutherford snaps back for Christ’s sake don’t call it transmutation they’ll have our heads off as alchemists thorium is radioactive – it exhales radiation and transmutes into protactinium a completely different element again Rutherford calls these newly formed elements daughters the daughters of uranium and each daughter in releasing radiation changes into a brand new daughter

Radium appears Marie Curie’s radium it is uranium’s great-great-great granddaughter that’s why it’s found in uranium ore now radium transmutes into her daughter for a daughter which happens to be a gas braid on transmutes into her daughter polonium which isn’t a gas and polonium transmutes into her daughter and her daughter uranium gives rise to 14 generations of change a line of 14 daughters and the last is led it’s a barren daughter lead isn’t radioactive at all it doesn’t transmute into anything lead isn’t going anywhere Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy have solved one of the great mysteries of radioactivity its uranium transforming itself into lead uranium is doing something no one ever thought possible it’s changing its atomic structure and with each change it releases energy uranium now gives physicists a novel idea if someone could find a way to force uranium to change release all that energy that person would possess a fantastical power

in 1905 here in Bern Switzerland lives a 25 year old draft-dodging underachiever he has a young wife and an infant son to support so he needs a job any job and this is his house the young man works as a clerk for the Patent Office he describes himself as a respectable Federal Inc P sir despite his job he manages to find time to pursue his main interest thinking the young man’s name is Albert Einstein right here he formulates the most famous equation in all of science: e equals mc-squared the equation means that energy E and mass M are interchangeable they’re basically different forms of the same thing and C is the speed of light a humongous number so mass times humongous numbers squared will give you a tremendous amount of energy.  So this equation means that a little bit of mass can be converted into a lot of energy every time uranium changes its atomic structure a tiny bit of maths is lost it’s converted into energy according to Einstein it’s a tremendous amount of energy Frederick Soddy the young chemist working with Rutherford is the first to speculate about this energy the man who put his hand on this store of energy would possess a weapon by which he could destroy the earth if he chose the man who imagines a world where Frederick Soddis weapon becomes a frightening reality exploiting Einstein’s equation of mass and energy is neither a physicist nor a chemist but a novelist Herbert George Wells writes the world set free a novel in which scientists have learned to harness the power of atomic energy 2036 ad you are catapulted through the centuries well this is a great unknown into an era of glass cities towering to the sound

Remarkably H.G. Wells publishes his novel the world set free in 1914 he dedicates it not to Albert Einstein but to Frederick Soddy the book also introduces a new and disturbing term into the language atomic bomb.

in 1933 here in London there is a Hungarian physicist named Leo Szilard. He’s imaginative driven impatient and brilliant now he is read H.G. Wells novel the world set free and it’s got him thinking Leo Szilard is walking down this street when he stops here at the corner of Southampton row and Russell Square it is at this intersection that he has the single most dangerous and defining idea of the modern world what if it were possible to create the atomic bombs envisioned by H.G. Wells by forcing atoms to convert their mass into energy so Leo’s idea is to have one atom release its energy triggering more atoms to release more energy in an exponentially increasing cascade until a gazillion atoms are all converting their mass into energy simultaneously by the time Leo reaches this point he has the whole terrifying idea in his head the idea of the chain reaction and it’s September 12th 1933 in Germany Adolf Hitler is Chancellor

the Nazis are frightening ly powerful murderously intolerant Jews in particular are persecuted many of the leading physicists in Europe are Jewish and many flee to America among them is Albert Einstein and in 1938 Leo Szilard joins him from London in New York.

I’m meeting Spencer Wirt. He’s a physicist and historian and I’m here to ask him about Leo’s a lard so lard was a Hungarian he was Hungarian Jew and this meant that from an early early age he was filled with anxiety and worries about doom and world disasters and so forth Germany of course was at that time the premier scientific power and so lard recognizes if there were to be an atomic bomb Germany had a good chance of being the first one to get it in Germany man Hitler and the Nazis Leo Szilard’s anxiety about Germany developing an atomic bomb gets worse when in 1939 disturbing news reaches him from Berlin at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute there’s a brilliant German chemist Otto Hahn now he’d actually been a student of Ernest Rutherford’s around the time that Rutherford and Saudi found that uranium naturally changes its atomic structure Otto Hahn has taken the next step he’s been experimenting with forcing the uranium atom to change and he’s getting puzzling results he sends his results to his Jewish colleague Lise Meitner who by this time like many Jewish physicists had fled Germany and it’s Lee’s Meitner who figures out what Otto Hahn has done he split the uranium atom something nobody thought possible now when we say splitting the atom what we really mean is splitting the nucleus splitting an atom is often presented as a break at billiards but it’s actually much more subtle than that

only one particular type of uranium nucleus will split one with 92 protons and 143 neutrons added together that makes 235 so it’s called uranium-235 the force that holds the nucleus together is the strongest force in the universe so physicists cleverly call it the strong nuclear force but the uranium nucleus is so huge it’s under incredible strain it’s unstable and if I add just one more Neutron to that nucleus it increases that instability so the whole uranium nucleus lifts apart it visions and now the strong force compacts both of those pieces so that overall their mass is less than the mass of the original nucleus mass has been transformed into energy just as Einstein said it would and even more importantly this fission releases two or three neutrons and this is where Leo szilard’s idea of the chain reaction comes into play because if these neutrons go on to hit other uranium-235 nuclei they caused them to vicious releasing more energy and more neutrons so one uranium nucleus can split two which split four then 8 and then 16 and within 60 steps a quintillion hoes have vision each one releasing energy e equals mc-squared now has a terrifying practicality uranium can make a bomb and the Germans know how to do it 1939 Adolf Hitler broke the pledge he made it Munich he took over all the rest of Czechoslovakia

The Nazis now control the old mining town of yokum’s Thal and now they’ve got both the uranium and the knowledge to make a bomb between Otto Hahn splitting the uranium atom in Berlin and the Nazis now controlling this the only source of uranium in all of Europe Leo Szilard is incredibly concerned the Lord was very afraid the Nazis we got the atomic bomb he knew that if they got the atomic bomb well ahead everybody else they’d win the war and he was concerned for the future of Western civilization so what kitty what could be done about it he had to get the United States working on her then that meant President Roosevelt so Roosevelt should know well how is he Leo’s lard going to get Franklin Roosevelt’s attention in New York Leo isn’t famous enough to get a letter to the president himself but he has a friend here who is Albert Einstein is now the world’s most famous scientist these days he rents a beach house for the summer on Long Island New York Leo goes to see Albert and he tells him about his frightening idea for the uranium bomb and Albert has never thought about this before but he does now any implications frighten him too so Albert puts his name on a letter to President Roosevelt warning him that the Nazis might be working on a uranium bomb Roosevelt now orders research to begin on an American uranium bomb in 1941 America is at war with Germany and Japan American industrial might is turned to war Leo’s a large uranium bomb gets the green light the project to build the uranium bomb is handed to the Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan district so it soon becomes known simply as the Manhattan Project and it’s top secret the project to build the uranium bomb doesn’t exist in charge of the physics for the Manhattan Project is Robert Oppenheimer the teenage boy who’d visited Yocum stall 20 years earlier a secret city called Los Alamos is built in the remote New Mexico desert Oppenheimer’s job is to take a rock and build a bomb the automatic controls direct now Rob this time the stakes are really high the Manhattan Project was the beginning of big science every talented physicist was recruited to work at Los Alamos and so you had a cluster of Nobel laureates there in the middle of the New Mexico desert enormous sums of money were spent two billion dollars which was quite a sum in 1945 this was industrial application of science on heretofore unseen heard of level Los Alamos was in fact a secret city it was known by a post-office box if you showed up at the gates asking questions you were firmly turned away the scientists who were drawn to work there were under strict instructions not to talk about it your job as a scientist was to essentially do as ordered to produce sort of the thunderclap that would end World War two before the American bomb is ready Germany surrenders and the war in Europe is over the victorious Allies round up every German physicist they can find including Otto Hahn the man who had first split the uranium atom so just how far have they progressed in building their bomb hardly at all there is no german uranium bomb leó szilárd the man who urged the President to build the bomb now drafts a petition urging him to stop I was quite aware of the dangers not because I am so wise but because I written a book written by HD wives called the world set free he described in it the development of atomic bombs so I was aware of these things but I was also aware of the fact that something had to be done if the Germans get the bomb before we have it they had knowledge they are the people who do it and had no choice always thought we had no choice in a stunning transformation worthy of uranium itself the man who conceived the bomb becomes the world’s first anti-nuclear activist but Leo Szilard is ignored the United States is still at war with Japan and the work to construct the uranium bomb continues against technical problems that have never been seen before and the biggest is uranium itself natural uranium mine from the ground is mostly u-238 meaning the nuclei contain 238 protons and neutrons fewer than one in a hundred is this nucleus u-235 it has three fewer neutrons and it is the nucleus that can split and trigger other u-235 nuclei to split so what this scientists at the Manhattan Project need to do is gather up enough of this u-235 to create critical mass an amount that can sustain a runaway chain reaction the problem is u-235 is almost identical to u-238 so scientists exploit the tiny difference in weight u-235 is ever so slightly lighter in order to create enriched uranium that is uranium with a much higher concentration of u-235 now by processing individual atoms on an industrial scale the scientists managed to create a basketball-sized lump of 80% pure u-235 it’s the core of a bomb and here it is to determine exactly how much uranium maybe physicists performed dangerous experiments incredibly delicately they call it tickling the Dragons tail inside this bomb the dragon sleeps lightly

about three hours drive from the secret town of Los Alamos there’s a valley named in Spanish the yonada del muerto the journey of the dead there are a few places on earth where you can truly say that the world changed forever this is one of them it was here in 1945 that they built a hundred-foot 30 meter tall tower and they wasted a loft the bomb they have made this was a bond test called Trinity

on July 16th 1945 at exactly 5:29 and 45 seconds in the morning the dragon roars robert Oppenheimer thought of his beloved Indian poetry I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the bhagavad-gita Vishnu is trying to persuade the prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says now I am become death the destroyer of worlds I suppose we all thought that one way or another

when the bomb goes off it is so incredibly bright it’s like another Rising Sun the heat from the bomb fuses the desert sand into this green glass it’s a mineral which is named in honor of the test Trinitite the first and only time it’s ever been created you can still detect radiation coming away from the Trinitite which is about 30 times the background so it’s not dangerous being here today but it would have been a different story some seventy years ago.

Ten days later the uranium bomb arrives on a tiny island in the Pacific where it is loaded into a B-29 named after the pilots mother the Enola Gays. Mission starts from Tinian in the Marianas the crew has had their final briefing on weather and air sea risk massive bomb has been loaded at 2:45 in the morning August 6 1945 Colonel Tibbets takes the Enola Gay down the runway into the air beginning the six and one half hour flight to Japan

The morning of August 6 1945 is beautiful and clear in her Russia people here see a single silver aircraft gleaming in the sky it’s the Enola Gay it releases one bomb and 600 meters directly overhead here at exactly 8:15 in the morning it detonates and uranium changes everything forever a rock forged in an exploding star erupts like nothing has ever erupted

We took a rock and we forced it to release its power we woke the dragon.

People closest to the blast start instantly vaporized in the tremendous heat they leave their shadows hatched on the pavement this is what the city of Ferrara looks like on August 6 1945 it’s a town laid to waste by uranium after the nuclear weapon detonates above the city it already creates a fireball 300 meters in diameter you can see represented by that red sphere and those not killed in the initial blast and fire will begin to die in the coming weeks from the radiation after the bomb. American authorities insist with the people who survived the blast in Hiroshima are not suffering ill effects due to exposure to radiation

An australian Wolford burchett the first Western journalist into the city finds something the world has never seen before people suffering from a horrible illness which we know today has acute radiation sickness I write this as a warning to the world in Hiroshima people are still dying mysteriously and horribly from an unknown something which I can only describe as the atomic plague all these phenomena they told me were due to the radioactivity released by the atomic bombs explosion of the uranium atom this sickness is something the world has never seen before there were clues to this new sickness back in the ancient land where ancient stories tell of a great power beneath the earth and it was here I found something extraordinary this painting is really fascinating it’s an ancient health warning it shows the sickness you would contract if you disturb the stones in this area you see the swelling on the joints strangely enough this land has some of the richest deposits of uranium on earth today we know the sickness at Hashima was due to the strange energy coming from uranium when the bomb went off zillions of uranium nuclei ripped themselves in half something that never happens in nature and that released an incredible amount of energy a lot of which you could see the heat and light and the shockwave but it also released energy that you can’t see it’s a form of radiation just like light but so high-energy that it’s invisible to our eyes this invisible radiation flashed through people at the speed of light even those not directly affected by the immediate blasts have their cells seriously damaged at the molecular level this new sickness is acute radiation syndrome

The uranium bomb would continue to kill till the death toll was more than 100,000 people before Hashima almost no one had heard of uranium and now all of a sudden it explodes into the consciousness of everyone on earth soon miners will come for the uranium beneath this country and the indigenous people fear they will disturb the sleeping reptile and unleash earthquakes and fire it’s the fire of a new age the age of uranium