This second unit for the WEA evening class ‘History of not very nice things’ highlighted two interesting lines of thought; that the physical processes at work in the centre of the Sun whereby hydrogen is converted to helium by continuous nuclear fusion is the very process that enables life in that heat and light produced are, as a result, transmitted through space to planet Earth, thus nuclear fusion/fission enable life while the ability of Man to harness this process makes possible the extinction of life.
The discovery of ways to ‘split the atom’ evolved from the speculation that atoms existed as the smallest unit of matter, this speculation started by John Dalton in the early 19th century. It was another Englishman Ernest Rutherford (actually born in New Zealand to immigrant parents from Essex but who worked most of his life in England) who experimented in the early 20th century in the possibility of ‘splitting the atom’, a discovery which led to the development of the nuclear bomb. Whereas Rutherford was acclaimed during his life for his advancement of the knowledge of physics, and indeed buried in Westminster Abbey near to the grave of Isaac Newton, Dalton’s last resting place in Manchester is now a playing field. Being a Quaker Dalton had had no access to a university education but did teach in a Dissenter’s College in Manchester while living a very Spartan bachelor life.
The history of U.S.A.’s Manhatten Project was then considered, this being the government’s response to Einstein’s fear that Germany might well otherwise be the first country to produce a nuclear bomb. British physicists worked in collaboration with the Project and in 1945 two atomic bombs were dropped on two Japanese cities (see above picture).
Today seven countries have ‘silos’ of nuclear warheads, others may soon follow, but seemingly the fear of nuclear war has declined. We did, of course, discuss opinions on the notions of nuclear deterrent and to what extent any nation could ‘win’ a nuclear war.